ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it no secret that any and all professional sports are welcome to play in Florida during the coronavirus pandemic.
So on Thursday, DeSantis expressed disappointment that his home town team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, aren’t letting fans in the stadium for the first two home games. And he suggested that the Bucs decision could negatively affect perceptions about the region’s readiness to welcome fans from around the world when the Super Bowl comes to Tampa in February.
“I really want to be able to show that Tampa is going to be a great place to host the Super Bowl,” DeSantis said. “Showing this community is ready to host a great Super Bowl, having some fans there would’ve been a good first step. It’s not where we need to be.”
The organization announced Wednesday that Raymond James Stadium will be empty when the Bucs take on the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 20 for the home opener. It also will be closed to fans two weeks later when the Los Angeles Chargers come to town.
“Based on our conversations with local officials, we have determined that it is not yet the right time to welcome fans back to Raymond James Stadium,” Bucs Chief Operating Officer Brian Ford said in a letter to season pass members.
If all goes well, the team hopes to welcome some fans back to the stadium when they host the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 18.
At a press conference at Green Bench Brewery in St. Petersburg, DeSantis reminded reporters that he has always exempted professional sports in any orders to shut down activity in Florida during the coronavirus outbreak. In the past six months, the state has welcomed golf tournaments, ultimate fighting and both the NBA and WNBA. NASCAR closed its regular season in Daytona last weekend in front of 20,000 fans.
Last month, DeSantis joined Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to announce 13,000 fans would be on hand when the team takes on Buffalo in its Sept. 20 home debut. Miami-Dade County, once the site of one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, remains under much tighter restrictions than Hillsborough County.
Had the Bucs wanted to do the same for their home opener, DeSantis said he would have made sure local officials didn’t stand in the way.
“I told the Bucs that whatever support you need from me you will have it to be able to do it,” DeSantis said.
A spokesman for the Buccaneers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In his letter to ticket holders this week, Ford noted that 25 other NFL teams will not be hosting fans to begin the season.
“This September, we will deeply miss the energy and passion that our fans bring to Raymond James Stadium on game days,” Ford wrote. “We remain excited for the 2020 season kickoff in New Orleans on September 13 and appreciate your tremendous support as you ’Fire the Cannons’ from home.”
DeSantis, a Pinellas County native and lifelong Bucs fan, said he hoped to watch in person as new quarterback Tom Brady and his former Patriots pal Rob Gronkowski took the field in Tampa for the first time donning their pirate flag helmets.
“If the Bucs had fans, I would try to go to the first home game,” DeSantis said. “I would. I am not going to go if other fans aren’t allowed.”