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'It's BS' — Students, Austin Residents and Health Officials Push Back On UT Football Game

This post was originally published on Sunday, Sept. 13, at 3:16 p.m. It has been updated to include a statement from University of Texas officials.

In its first game of an unusual football season, the University of Texas at Austin hosted the University of Texas at El Paso. The Longhorns won big, 59-3.

Despite the success on the field, one key game-day strategy failed: mandatory face coverings.

Standing in front of the stadium, longtime Austin resident Ed Malcik waved his hands across the scene.

“Look around you. There's three people there without masks,” he said, pointing at various groups. “There's another over there. There's one person behind me. You know, there's a lot of people coming in without masks.”

Media access to the game was restricted, but portions of the approximately 15,000-person crowd were visible from the roof of a nearby parking garage. Of about 600 people within sight, more than 300 didn’t wear a face covering.

Malcik stopped by the stadium to photograph the arriving crowd. He said the season will likely lead to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I don't think there's going to be a lot of games. I think it's too difficult,” he said. “I figure 70% of the people here are wearing masks, and the other 30% are not. And that's problematic.”

He also described the scene as “boring.” Several game-day traditions were canceled, and far fewer people were on the streets than normal.

Patty Otto has been coming to UT games for about 25 years. She said the scene was unreal.

“It's nice, but it's a little Twilight Zone-ish,” she said.

Otto said she felt safe. But UTEP fan Michelle Burns did not.

“I don't,” she said. “But my son's playing, and I'm not gonna miss him playing on this field. So here we are.”

Local health officials in Austin have been critical of UT’s decision to host the large gathering, even with some COVID-19 safety measures in place. The stadium’s capacity is limited to 25% in accordance with state law, but only UT students — a small fraction of the crowd — had to test negative ahead of the game in order to attend.

University officials said social distancing measures were in place. But outside the stadium, social distancing was non-existent.

There were more than 15,000 people in attendance at UT's first game of the football season. According to state law, the stadium can be filled to 25% capacity, which is 25,000 people.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
There were roughly 15,000 people in attendance at UT's first game of the football season. According to state law, the stadium can be filled to 25% capacity, which is 25,000 people.

Inside the stadium, more than 15,000 fans were spaced out. Future games could hold up to 25,000 people.

“Our gathering limit is 10, and having 25,000 people in one space is a concern," said Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim health authority, speaking at a press conference a few days before the game.

Cerena Ermitanio is a UT senior. She was highly critical of the decision to resume games, especially after the university told students to act responsibly.

“I honestly think it's BS,” she said.

Ermitanio said she thinks the university will blame students for any outbreaks, “but I think the reality is UT should be all totally closed. All of our classes should be online because all of these things are open at this weird number of capacity. And still hosting football games is really, to me, an incentive for people to move back and have these gatherings.”

During the event, students gathered off campus at Cain & Abel’s and other restaurants to watch the televised game. Locations with outdoor patios must abide by social distancing protocols, but capacity limits go out the door in these open-air spaces, and masks come off when food and drinks are served.

The University of Texas required face masks to be worn at its first football game of the season, but many in the crowd did not keep their masks on throughout the game.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
The University of Texas required face masks to be worn inside the stadium at its first football game of the season. Outside, about half the crowd wore masks.

Since students moved back, large gatherings have also been spotted at co-ops and Greek life houses, even as UT has confirmed more than 300 new COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff over the past month.

Malcik — the longtime Austin resident — questioned the wisdom of UT’s approach, which places the burden of a successful reopening squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of 18- to 22-year-olds.

“I think they're gonna be really hard-pressed to keep a bunch of young people away from larger gatherings. I think they do a good job on the campus, but after that, it's kind of everybody for themselves,” he said. “It's very problematic. I mean, I've witnessed situations — large gatherings, and all with no masks. And so that’s a serious problem. And where that's going to go, or how long it's going to go? I haven't got a clue.”

Officials with UT media relations said security staff was instructed to enforce the rules, and compliance from attendees was expected.

"We’ll be reviewing all aspects of the event to see if there are areas where we can improve procedures," the statement reads.

Later this month, UT Austin's football team will play Texas Tech in Lubbock. The team's next home game is against Texas Christian University in early October.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony. He is a corps member of Report For America.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony