In late May, LSU Interim President Tom Galligan said he “desperately” hopes to see fans in Tiger Stadium this fall, “staying physically distant, but yelling loudly into our masks.”
One month after those remarks, as new COVID-19 hotspots pulses and cases rise at an alarming rate across the South, many LSU fans are left wondering if Death Valley can hold spectators, even at limited capacity.
“Yes, we do, at least we certainly hope so,” Media Relations Director Ernie Ballard said. “However, there is much to be worked out between now and then— and a lot of that will be determined by where we are as a state with respect to COVID.”
Edward Trapido, a professor of epidemiology at the LSU School of Public Health, said he would not approve the return at this point.
“Certainly, if it were happening now, no," Trapido said. "It's just too big a crowd."
Trapido is working with the LSU administration to identify apps that can track symptoms and trace positive cases through the community. He’s familiar with the University’s plan for reopening, and he acknowledges that a living, breathing campus is possible in theory, yet challenging in practice. If the decision were up to him, he said, Tiger Stadium would be vacant this fall. Trapido’s colleague, Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, agreed.
“I just don't feel it would be feasible,” Straif-Bourgeois said. “Really a logistical nightmare.”
Straif-Bourgeois works on the team of epidemiologists who the state health department and Gov. John Bel Edwards have entrusted to advise the government on social distancing guidelines and orders. She dismantled the notion of a socially distanced crowd at a football game, drawing the path an asymptomatic, infected fan would walk through the stadium, easily toppling the two defenses LSU will set to stop the spread: social distancing and masks.
“How can you enforce social distancing?” Straif-Bourgeois asked.
Both epidemiologists voiced concerns about crowded entry and exit gates, bathrooms, concession lines, ramps and elevators. In the stands, they fear fans will lose themselves in the excitement and stray from safety protocols.
“It will be hot. You will be sweaty,” Straif-Bourgeois said. “Again, you will probably, at some point, take the mask off because you want to eat or drink something... You will scream. You will shout, and that actually produces more of this virus to be aerosolized.”
Both Trapido and Straif-Bourgeois presume that the coronavirus is seasonal, meaning a resurgence in cases will coincide with the kickoff of the football season. A percentage of fans in attendance will, in all likelihood, carry the virus. Even a small portion would be significant. Each infected person could transmit the virus to two to three other people, Trapido said, and those two or three will infect another few, and so on.
“We're basically building up a lot of people who are part of this growing tree of cases, and so there is a risk of getting infected in that situation," Trapido said.
Add it all up, and it’s enough to concern Trapido.
“From a public health point of view, it’s a little bit frightening, but it's not impossible,” Trapido said. “It can be done if students are very careful.”
The students who congregated in Tigerland bars last weekend were not careful. The gatherings resulted in over 100 positive tests, earning the status of a “superspreader” event. Two concerns University administration has not publicly addressed rose to the forefront.
First, the University cannot control where students go when they leave campus. They could pick up the virus in the surrounding areas and return it to campus.
Second, the general public, including young people, has not been sufficiently vigilant in social distancing, in wearing masks. Epidemiologists blame the new outbreaks on this negligence.
“Looking at the data and the current knowledge, what we see about compliance, wearing masks in the general population of Louisiana, I would assume that most college students are not compliant to that,” Straif-Bourgeois said.
She said she didn’t mean that as an insult — students are less incentivized to be careful because they will likely yield only mild symptoms from COVID-19. But, Trapido said, students know neither the effects of the virus long-term, nor the number of people they have infected.
“We don't know any long-term effects of this disease because it hasn't been around long enough to tell,” Trapido said. “It may be fine. It may not be.
"Yeah, you're fine, and you go home, and your parents are there. Or your faculty, your professors and your staff are around you. You're carrying something that can kill these people.”
Death, indeed, is the worst case scenario. When LSU reopens, death will be the elephant in the socially distanced classrooms. Louisiana’s COVID-19 total death rate is around 5%. The epidemiologists said the spread of the virus is in the hands of the students, and so are the lives of the elder professors and staff members.
Trapido wants students to author a “social contract,” a pledge to protect themselves, their classmates, families and friends, and pass it along for the rest of the student body to sign. That commitment is important, he said. The fates of the school year and the football season depend on it.
“It's probably not very likely that this will be a success,” Straif-Bourgeois said. “But we don't know because no one has ever done it before.”