TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Thousands of University of Alabama football fans partied in the street near campus after the Crimson Tide defeated Ohio State 52-24 for the national championship, ignoring pleas for safety at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in a celebration a top health official said Tuesday could worsen disease.
Students and others poured out of jampacked bars near campus as time expired in Miami late Monday, traffic cameras and images posted on social media show, gathering on University Boulevard in an area called “The Strip.”
Many of the fans screaming and cheering as they pressed against each other in the street didn't wear face masks. Dr. Scott Harris, the head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said he expected more cases of COVID-19 to result from the street party.
“It’s disappointing to see people not paying attention to the guidance that we try to give to keep them safe. I was excited as anybody and wanted to celebrate also, but right now is not a time to be out in large groups of people close together when you are not masked," he said.
Fourteen people were arrested on charges including public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, officials said at a news conference where Mayor Walt Maddox said the crowd was “larger than any celebration that we’ve seen in recent memory.”
In an open letter released through social media, the United Campus Workers of Alabama, a labor group for university employees, said the gathering could become a “super-spreader event” and asked for hazardous-duty pay for workers in close contact with students; evidence of virus testing; and a two-week suspension of in-person classes.
The university is requiring virus screening for all students returning for the semester who plan to live on campus, with testing planned through next week at the basketball arena. Students and workers also are required to complete online training about reducing the risk of spreading the illness.
A university statement released Tuesday afternoon said its officials had worked to minimize risk before, during and after the championship game, including “issuing warnings and admonitions about the need for masks, social distancing and responsible behavior."
“As a result of recent events, we are allowing faculty to be flexible for the next two weeks with the option to temporarily hold classes remotely," the statement added. “Students have the option to attend in-person activities remotely as well.”
It added that while classroom transmission “is almost nonexistent, we understand the concerns caused by recent events" and said all health and safety rules continue in effect.
More than 5,500 people have died in Alabama from the illness caused by the coronavirus, and about 408,000 have tested positive. About 20,000 people have tested positive in Tuscaloosa County, making it one of the worst in the state for the virus in overall numbers, and about 175 COVID-19 patients are being treated by DCH Regional Medical Center in the city.
The postgame scene was exactly what officials feared as they urged people to watch at home and celebrate privately.
“Cheer, celebrate, and enjoy the success of our team, but please do so responsibly and safely. Roll Tide!” Police Chief Brent Blankley said in a statement beforehand. Police cars and officers are visible at the fringes of the throng in some images.
People lined up to get into the bars an hour before kickoff despite the warnings, The Tuscaloosa News reported. “All bars are open and we’re ready to roll over Ohio State,” said a tweet by Gallettes, a popular student bar, long before the game began.