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As pandemic persists, could tailgating be a template for safe social partying?

One health expert says pregame festivities can remain enjoyable if partiers mostly stay in their space.
USF fan John Collins of Zephyrhills settles in for some chicken while tailgating outside of Raymond James Stadium prior to the Bulls' game against Temple last November.
USF fan John Collins of Zephyrhills settles in for some chicken while tailgating outside of Raymond James Stadium prior to the Bulls' game against Temple last November. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2019) ]
Published Jul. 2, 2020
Updated Jul. 3, 2020

For roughly a dozen years, Marc Ostroff has set up his USF tailgating Taj Mahal on one of the most coveted parcels outside Raymond James Stadium.

Conspicuously parked 20 yards from the stadium’s south entrance (Lot 5, Row 2, Space 1) is a shiny 6-by-8-foot Wells Cargo trailer converted into a Bulls pregame oasis. Accessories include a built-in beer system, 60-inch TV, automatic satellite dish and refurbished counter-top space.

“It used to have a grill on the back,” said Ostroff, an insurance agent who graduated from USF in 2004. “But we got a few bucks in our hands so we cater now instead of grilling.”

Normally, Ostroff’s sleek, fully-loaded rig attracts roughly 20 regular guests per game, not counting the “strays” who drift by to chat and imbibe. But if conventional tailgating is permitted this autumn, he plans to make his revelry area more restricted.

“We are going to kind of create the entire tailgate space as a VIP area,” said Ostroff, who has earned “Iron Bull” status because of his donation of at least $10,000 annually to USF’s athletic program.

Related: What happens to the home-field advantage without fans?

“We’ve ordered green velvet ropes. We’re either gonna use wristbands or neck credentials to be admitted into the tailgate. … We’re gonna do temperature checks upon entry.”

Welcome to pregame in the pandemic era, where the corn hole participants could be masked and designated spaces could be protected more fiercely than ever. All of which might be a good thing.

If football proceeds at the pro and college levels this fall, and if a limited number of fans are allowed inside stadiums, the tailgate scene — done correctly — could provide a social-distancing template as the sports world slowly re-boots.

But correctly is the critical word, says Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean at Morsani College of Medicine at USF.

“You stay in your space, you stay in your spot between the white lines,” said Wolfson, an expert on health care policy. “And the responsible part of it is, remembering that prolonged exposure to other people outside of your family and the people you come with — in proximate settings — is the risk.”

A group of USF dental students, from left, Devika Joshe, Seth Calish, George Gerakios and Brooke Feck, tailgate outside of Raymond James Stadium last November before a game against Temple.
A group of USF dental students, from left, Devika Joshe, Seth Calish, George Gerakios and Brooke Feck, tailgate outside of Raymond James Stadium last November before a game against Temple. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

To this point, the national snapshot of college football in 2020 remains mostly undeveloped. With no end in sight to the COVID-19 crisis, schools and professional leagues continue working through scenarios that would include stadiums at normal or nominal fan capacity, or no fans at all.

But the activity outside the stadiums, where the risk for coronavirus transmission is lower, could continue flourishing, albeit with stipulations.

“We’re gonna social park,” South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner recently told 107.5-FM in Columbia.

“Gamecock Park and the parking facilities that we control, with a limited fan base in attendance, you certainly could do that. And we would, more than likely. Try to park socially apart, and encourage tailgating to have social distancing.”

USF athletic director Michael Kelly said recently that his staff continues developing several game-day scenarios, with no firm tailgating guidelines implemented. Tampa Sports Authority spokesman Bobby Silvest said the organization, which manages Raymond James Stadium, has received no tailgating parameters from its tenants (USF, Bucs).

“All of that’s still very fluid,” Kelly said, “but (tailgating) is definitely a major topic.”

Related: Tom Brady is the hottest ticket in the NFL, but who can watch?

Wolfson suggested the greater game-day concerns arise after the tailgate. Protocols almost certainly will be established for the entrance of fans — at least those permitted inside the stadium — and the procedure for getting them to their seat.

“And then once they’re inside, they have to find a way — in an organized and responsible fashion — of going to the restrooms and back, and ordering their hot dogs and beers and pretzels,” Wolfson said.

“But the parking lots themselves, as long as people stay in their lane … you don’t need to necessarily wear the face mask if you’re outside, unless you begin to engage with other people’s tailgate.”

Ostroff’s tailgate, if permitted, will be in its convenient, customary spot. Though not worried about staging his pre-kickoff fete amid a potentially lingering pandemic, he remains cautious.

Hence the velvet VIP rope, and this message to his customary revelers.

“No right or wrong answer, do what makes you comfortable,” he said. “If you’re a frequent tailgate visitor and you don’t feel comfortable coming this season, we can’t wait to see you next season.”

Potential watch party venues

LUIS SANTANA | TIMES
Tampa Bay Lighting host a watch party on the beach at the Guy Harvey Outpost, a Tradewinds Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach. [Saturday February 2, 2019] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | TIMES Tampa Bay Lighting host a watch party on the beach at the Guy Harvey Outpost, a Tradewinds Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach. [Saturday February 2, 2019] [Photo Luis Santana | Times] [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2019) ]

If fans can’t watch sports in arenas or stadiums, what’s left but socially distanced watch parties?

There’s a lot that would have to go into this kind of planning, looking at budgets, availability and coronavirus spikes. Ultimately, approval from the various leagues will be a must, too.

Given previous watch party venues and the space needed for larger gatherings, here is a list of places fans may be able to come together again:

• Armature Works, Tampa (previously used by the Lightning during the Global Series with Buffalo)

• TradeWinds Resort, St. Pete Beach (previously used by the Lightning and Rays for watch parties)

• Parking lots of Raymond James Stadium & AdventHeath Training Center, Tampa

• Parking lots of Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg

• Thunder Alley, Tampa (previously used by the Lightning for playoff watch parties over the years)

• Drive-In movie theaters (like Silver Moon Drive-In in Lakeland and the Ruskin Family Drive-In)

• Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Tampa (previously used by the Lightning during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs)

• North Straub Park, St. Petersburg (previously used by the Lightning during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Rays during the 2019 ALDS)

• Streets of Ybor City (previously used by the Lightning during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs)

• Sparkman Wharf, Tampa (previously used by the Lightning during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Rays during the 2019 ALDS)