‘We can’t tailgate this year’: Health experts more nervous for fans than players as Big Ten announces football restart

MADISON, Wis. — UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer was clear: what the Big Ten is attempting to accomplish this fall is extremely challenging.

“We’ve never tried to bring back football during a pandemic before, so it’s just really hard to know if it’s going to work or not,” Dr. Jeff Pothof told News 3 Now during a Zoom interview.

What’s less clear to Pothof, and the nation as a whole, is if the conference’s Plan-B is ultimately successful.

The conference announced Wednesday morning school leaders voted unanimously to start the college football season in late October.  It was a reversal on a decision in August to postpone all Fall sports seasons.

The news did not surprise Pothof — rumors were swirling for several days — and he noted rapid testing as a key factor in allowing for a restart.

“It’s a better approach than where we were when we first started talking about sports and just the general principles of, can you do contact sports or not in the age of COVID?  And clearly without testing you cannot,” Pothof said.

UW-Madison intends to use antigen tests on its players and staff, with the conference developing a uniform daily testing process.  Pothof explained the antigen tests identify a protein COVID-19 produces and offer results as quickly as five to 15 minutes.  However, the tests aren’t as accurate as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which seek out genetic material.

“If you’re gonna have a situation where people are unmasked in close proximity to one another… you really can’t do that unless you have reasonably high assurances that none of those people are positive,” Pothof said.  “Although our tests are good, none of our tests are perfect.”

Pothof says that uniform testing will also limit the risk when teams begin traveling to play their scheduled games.

Fans will not be allowed in the stands, but Badgers fans historically turn out in large numbers for tailgate parties.  That prospect worries Pothof, who says hospitals are currently in a good position to handle patients, but stresses they’re far from empty.

“We can’t tailgate this year.  Like, that can’t happen,” Pothof said.  “I think we need to see what kinds of efforts are going to be put in place to ensure that those kids that are on campus or other individuals that really enjoy a great tailgate aren’t doing that this year.  Otherwise, the teams might not fare too poorly…  but the community could do much worse.”

Public Health Madison & Dane County echoed Pothof’s statement and stressed how tailgating would only worsen the spread of coronavirus on and around campus.

“Of course it’s disappointing that something as well-loved as gathering to watch Badger football games can’t happen this year,” said PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich. “But the reality is that it’s not possible to have a traditional football season without substantially increasing COVID-19 transmission. We value people’s health and lives over sports, and we hope that UW does as well.”

Pothof noted the Big Ten’s decision appeared to be well thought out and rejected using the word “irresponsible,” adding everything people do during the pandemic comes with a risk.  Still, Pothof hedged his bets on if the Badgers — and conference as a whole — would make it through the planned schedule.

“I don’t want to go down on the wrong side of history.  If I’m a betting man, I’m not sure I’d be putting a lot of money on if we’re going to get through eight games, but I’ve been proven wrong before,” Pothof said.