By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
Southeastern Conference officials are trying to get back to normal on football game days, with stadiums filled with fans and grills being fired up outside, even in a portion of the country where the states have among the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates.
The SEC will fully reopen for business this weekend, with 11 of the 14 teams hosting games after a season of shrunken crowds and no on-campus tailgating in states where fall Saturdays are all about college football.
The lone outlier for COVID-19 restrictions in the league is LSU, where fans 12 and up attending the McNeese State home opener on Sept. 11 will have to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Most schools do encourage mask wearing within the stadium, and perhaps require them indoors, but there are few other COVID-related restrictions.
Tailgating is back, but many of the attendance restrictions and mask mandates from 2020 are not.
Most of the league’s players and coaches are fully vaccinated, even if many of the fans aren’t. Alabama coach Nick Saban is glad that his players get to play in front of a big crowd again, but isn’t without reservations.
“As excited as we are about the opportunity that we have to have a full stadium, I think we want to have a full stadium that’s safe for the people in it,” said Saban, who has implored Alabamians to get vaccinated.
But even the iconic coach who has led the Crimson Tide to six national titles faces an uphill battle in that regard.
All but one of the 11 states in the SEC footprint have a substantially lower vaccination rate than the national average of 52.4%. Florida is slightly above that rate but has also has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases.
In fact, SEC states made a clean sweep of the top 10 in most new cases per capita in a two-week span ending Aug. 21, according to data from Johns Hopkins. Missouri fared better, at No. 17.
The SEC has declared that games will be forfeited this season, unlike in 2020, if a team doesn’t have enough available players. So there’s plenty of motivation for league teams to get the shots, including that teams meeting the 85% vaccination threshold aren’t required to have indoor mask mandates or regular testing.
But that doesn’t provide protection to fans packing stadiums.
Two season-opening games games involving SEC teams will be held at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where officials will only require masks in enclosed spaces like the club seating areas, press box and retail store.
Top-ranked Alabama opens against No. 14 Miami on Saturday in Atlanta, with Mississippi-Louisville meeting in the city two days later.
Rebels coach Lane Kiffin has said every one of his players and coaches has had the shots thanks to a late summer surge. No SEC football coach has said he isn’t vaccinated. Some, like Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, who returned from quarantine on Monday after testing positive, have declined to answer.
Kiffin said he “wouldn’t understand” why a coach would choose not to get vaccinated.
“I can’t go to our team, not get vaccinated and say, ‘OK, we’re going to prepare and do all this work for a game.’
Also, what if you tested positive a couple of days before the game, say, ‘OK guys, thanks for all your work. I won’t be there, because I didn’t get vaccinated,'” Kiffin said
“People are different, but it makes no sense to me as a leader. A lot of people don’t get it because they’re just lazy and selfish.”
The Crimson Tide players and coaches are almost 100% vaccinated, with a rate of more than 91% among the coaches, staff and administrators throughout the athletic department, athletic director Greg Byrne said in a recent post on Twitter.
Other coaches, including Georgia’s Kirby Smart, also say that more than 90% of their team is vaccinated.
“My goal has always been 100%,” Smart said.
Auburn is requiring face coverings for passengers on buses carrying fans to and from the stadium, along with elevators, the press box and “all indoor premium spaces” for those 2 or older.
Pre-game traditions are also making a return, like Tennessee’s pre-game Vol Walk, minus the high fives or any other physical contact with players. No masks will be required — just encouraged — inside Neyland Stadium, the nation’s fifth-largest stadium.
“We are back to a normal capacity and atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium,” first-year Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said. “We are excited to go out and show the work we have put in during the last seven to eight months to go play some football.”
SEC officials are hoping the opportunity for teams to showcase improvement continues throughout the season.