Bucs Fans Make The Most Of A Pandemic Super Bowl
At the NFL Super Bowl Experience in Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Park, fans were dancing, shopping for game day gear, and attempting to kick field goals against a virtual backdrop — things typical of the event.
But missing on this Wednesday evening were the cheers and the camaraderie of strangers high-fiving each other over shared excitement.
Instead of encouraging fans to "make some noise," the MC on stage shouted reminders to wear masks at all times.
“Everybody’s just kind of wandering around, nobody’s like, ‘Woo hoo!’, you know, it seems really low-key,’” said long-time Buccaneers fan Patty Hancock of Clearwater, who was decked out in a Bucs-themed leather jacket and mask, along with a fuzzy pirate hat.
This is life during the COVID-19 pandemic. But fans said a restricted Super Bowl is better than the game being canceled.
Peyton Cantu, a Bucs fan since birth, and his dad Rabul said they wish they could have seen some games in-person this year, but are cherishing the fact that their team is making history as the first NFL team to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium after a long absence from the championship.
"It means a lot you know, I knew we had the pieces, and to have [Tom] Brady on the team, it feels good,” said the younger Cantu.
His father, a fan since the 1970’s, said he remembers many a losing season, when the team would post records like 2-14.
“If we went 6-10, we thought we won the Super Bowl, winning six games," he said with a laugh.
New England transplant Marilyn Sylla of Riverview sported a red sweater to show some love for the Bucs. Even with her mask on, you could tell she was all smiles.
"I am having a blast, I moved here from Massachusetts a year-and-a-half ago — me and Tom Brady!” she joked.
Sylla said she'll attend a small family gathering on Sunday. She said the pandemic was definitely on their minds when making plans.
"But you know what, we have to keep living life, use common sense, social distance, we wear our masks," she said.
But Jay Wolfson, a public health professor with the University of South Florida, said a year into the pandemic, a lot of people just aren't going to listen.
Instead he's advising they do the best they can to protect themselves and others: things like hanging out outside or keeping windows open, while also having plenty of hand sanitizer around the house and not serving food buffet-style.
"We know that up to 60 percent of people now could be asymptomatic, which means they don’t have any symptoms whatsoever and they can pass it on, and we have three new versions of this disease now in our community," said Wolfson.
While Super Bowl house parties are the norm for many, plenty of people will be out and about, including the 25,000 or so with tickets to the game.
The NFL is spacing out seating, providing masks and safety kits to all attendees, and banning tailgating.
Bars and restaurants in entertainment districts like Ybor City, SoHo, and the area surrounding Raymond James Stadium are hosting watch parties, with some already sold out.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor mandated masks be worn in those areas, even when outdoors. She said the city has 150,000 to hand out to anyone in need.
“’If you need a mask just ask,’ is the slogan, and then we're going to have code enforcement from Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa patrolling those areas just reminding people to wear their masks and wear them appropriately,” she said.
While repeat offenders could get fined, city officials acknowledge there's little they can do to enforce safety measures as the state has made it difficult for local governments to do so.
Inside the crowded downtown sports bar, Hattricks, Bucs season ticket holder Rees Crosby said he's following the rules while out on the town.
Sporting a stubbly beard, he had one word to sum up how he feels about his team potentially winning it all at home:
"Amazing,” Crosby said. “That's why I haven't shaved because I don't want to jinx anything."
A Bucs win is sort of a double-edged sword in a pandemic.
After the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last fall, there were what Jay Wolfson described as "fraternity parties in the streets." The celebrations drew national criticism for being potential superspreader events.
Wolfson said he doesn't want to see that happen again, but at the same time knows how much a Super Bowl — and a Bucs win — means to the community.
“This is like a big shot in the arm, this is like a booster shot for Tampa Bay,” he said. “We needed this, we needed this psychologically, we needed it financially, but the offset of that balance is we’re exposing more people to the prospect of getting sick,” he said.
Wolfson said spikes in coronavirus cases seem inevitable after the game and that the region will just have to manage whatever happens. But he said football fans have the power now to reduce those as much as possible while still having a good time.
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