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A pandemic Super Bowl in Tampa? This figures.
Stephanie Hayes ventures into the belly of the COVID beast. It feels like a party, interrupted.
Fans attend the festivities along the Tampa Riverwalk during the NFL's Super Bowl 55 Experience.
Fans attend the festivities along the Tampa Riverwalk during the NFL's Super Bowl 55 Experience. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 5
Updated Feb. 5

It figures that this would happen to Tampa.

Tampa! Long the butt of jokes, misunderstood, underappreciated Tampa. Of course, the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS would finally be playing in the SUPER BOWL, happening in TAMPA, during a PANDEMIC, and I will keep using CAPS FOR EMPHASIS.

THIS FIGURES.

While I would rather stay safely inside a human-sized Ziploc bag, it’s part of my job to “interact in the community.” So I gathered 74 masks and headed downtown to assess the situation.

Have you ever been to a great party, but then a neighbor asks you to move the cars, and the mood gets weird? That’s the coronavirus Super Bowl vibe. Highly controlled fun, subject to cancellation at any time.

First, I had to retrieve a pass to show I am not a regular person, but “the media,” and therefore annoying. This would let me bop around, and serve as a flag for people to walk away, which is helpful in COVID times.

The Tampa Convention Center was packed with police officers and sweet working doggos, off limits from our grubby hands. There is a coronavirus metaphor in there somewhere. To enter Super Bowl 55 territory, workers said, I needed THE APP. Did I have THE APP? Of course, I didn’t have THE APP, I explained, while other members of the media who actually followed directions stood behind, aggravated.

I downloaded THE APP, but there was a problem with the password, so I went to the Problem With Password Table, followed by the health screening table. Was I sick? Had I been in contact with COVID-19? I glanced at the torrent of people milling around and marked “no?”

The friendly staff, who could never be paid enough, led people through metal detectors. I got a wristband to show I was definitely healthy and not one of the 40 percent who have COVID-19 and don’t know it. Then, someone handed over my belongings in a paper hot dog dish, which I guess is sanitary? At this point, I wanted a hot dog.

The next thing to know about a pandemic Super Bowl is that everything must be a sports phrase. On the walk to the Super Bowl Experience at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, a disembodied voice called COVID-19 “our common opponent.” Signs said “We’ve got you covered,” which had to do with sanitizer, and “Two yards can change the game,” a distance analogy honestly asking too much math at this difficult time.

The voice warned to have a different app ready, which filled me with dread. In the app area, I explained I was Problem With Password People, then realized if I flailed like a calamari, something would get scanned. I glommed onto a group of security guards near a janitorial entrance. Someone made the sign of the cross.

Revelers drank Bud Light in the designated Bud Light drinking area, safe because COVID is a beer snob. Guests did sporty activities to “experience” being a highly-paid man with athletic skill, something I’ve always wondered about. They stood in line to see the Lombardi Trophy and took photos atop headless jerseys.

Most everyone followed the mask rules. Staff roamed with signs reminding people to distance. If you leap past the theater of it all, the notion that any gathering of this size is safe right now, it was fairly mild. In another era, everyone would have been doing body shots at 2 p.m.

Which leads me to the take. Tampa is dazzling. The Jose Gasparilla pirate ship was out, looking like a fine snack. The weather was incredible. The Riverwalk was gorgeous, the restaurants and art on display. If more people came here, they wouldn’t harass us so much in comedy specials. This truly, truly figures!

Outside the park, Gradual Taylor wore a stars and stripes cowboy hat and played Purple Rain on an electric guitar. Everyone knows the Prince halftime show was the best one (don’t email me), so I had to talk to him.

Gradual Taylor of Cincinnati plays music outside the Super Bowl Experience at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa on Feb. 3, 2021.
Gradual Taylor of Cincinnati plays music outside the Super Bowl Experience at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa on Feb. 3, 2021. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

He came from Cincinnati and described himself as “old enough to know better.” Aren’t we all! Was he concerned about the troubles?

“What troubles?” he said.

“I mean the pandemic.”

He shrugged, said something about Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes being excellent. He fired up Hurts So Good by John Mellencamp as people passed in masks and jerseys, something out of a twisted fable.

Tampa. Sometimes love don’t feel like it should.

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Tampa Bay Times Super Bowl 55 coverage

TIMELINE: How the Bucs and Tampa converged for Super Bowl 55

ATTENTION SUPER BOWL VISITORS: Here’s our guide to Tampa Bay’s socially distanced attractions

PARTY PLANNING IN A PANDEMIC: How to host a safe Super Bowl party

FANS IN TAMPA: A first look inside the Super Bowl Experience in Tampa

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