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Alabama college crowds raise questions about pandemic safety

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Frustrated by scenes of crowded entertainment districts and bars on the first weekend many students returned to the University of Alabama, officials on Monday looked for ways to improve safety during the coronavirus pandemic and hopefully save college football this year.

Police already are “depleted and exhausted,” and leaders don’t want to add to restrictions that already include early closing times and crowd limits at nightspots, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said.

But the sight of crowds like those that gathered near campus in an area called The Strip are disheartening after officials spent weeks pleading with people to take steps that will slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, Maddox said.

“If you don’t want to protect yourself and you don’t want to protect your family and you don’t want to protect your friends and thousands of jobs, maybe just maybe you would want to protect the football season so we can have it this fall,” Maddox said in an interview.

Maddox’s comments came after University of Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne tweeted a photo that showed dozens of people, many not wearing face masks or staying away from others, waiting to get into a popular bar in Tuscaloosa on the day sororities accepted new members.

“Who wants college sports this fall?? Obviously not these people!! We’ve got to do better than this for each other and our campus community. Please wear your masks!” Byrne said in a tweet Sunday.

Tuscaloosa police officers issued 12 citations for mask violations and arrested four people, but the problem wasn’t just at the University of Alabama: Photos on social media also showed large crowds and relatively few masks around Auburn University over the weekend.

The operator of a popular Tuscaloosa bar where crowds gathered on the sidewalk awaiting entry denied that his business was to blame for problems. Writing in a public post on Facebook, Gallettes owner Jeff Sirkin said as many as 30,000 students showed up in town over the weekend.

“Did you expect them to sit at home and read? We are doing all we can,” Sirkin said.

Public health officials worry that crowds on college campuses, combined with the resumption of classes in elementary through high school grades, will increase the spread of the virus.

While some campuses are teaching classes primarily online and some collegiate athletic leagues have canceled fall sports, the Southeastern Conference — which includes Alabama and Auburn — is moving ahead with plans to play games starting Sept. 26. The league planned to announce its revised game schedule Monday.

Universities have enacted rules meant to enforce mask wearing and social distancing on campus, and Alabama has a statewide rule requiring masks in public places. Many people are complying and covering their faces, but the rules also are being ignored by many.

In Tuscaloosa, where bars are required to close at 11 p.m. this fall to help stem the spread of the virus, Uber driver Ray Allen told a columnist for The Tuscaloosa News the crowds just move to houses once the nightclubs close. Most students “could care less” about wearing masks, Allen said.

“I see it every night,” he said. “It’s an on-going party.”

Maddox said city officials didn’t want additional rules to stem the pandemic, but added: “Everything is always on the table.”

“My fear is what happened yesterday is a spark. What we can’t let happen is that spark light a fire” Maddox said.

More than 104,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Alabama and at least 1,855 have died of the illness, which usually results in only mild to moderate symptoms but is particularly dangerous for the elderly and people with other health problems.

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