TAMPA — It will be a Super Bowl like never before — a championship showdown in the midst of a global pandemic, nationwide racial reckoning and political upheaval.
So who better than Tampa Bay to play host?
We’ve done it before, under the most challenging of circumstances, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told reporters gathered Monday to hear about community logistics now that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the NFC championship and become the first team ever to host a Super Bowl game in their home stadium.
“This is our opportunity to put our best foot forward on the world stage,” Castor said after the news conference, comparing the challenge to hosting the Republican National Convention in 2012. “People are going to see what we already know — that Tampa Bay is the greatest area in the nation.”
In 1991, the NFL nearly canceled Tampa’s Super Bowl 25 when the Persian Gulf War broke out just days before the game. With some events canceled and stepped-up game-day security, Tampa managed to pull it off, Castor said. Then, in 2009, the city defied the odds again by hosting Super Bowl 43 during the Great Recession.
“Just like we do everything else here in Tampa Bay, we’ll do it as a region, we’ll do it big, and we’ll do it well,” Castor said. “Not only will the Bucs be the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl game in our own backyard, but we will be the first team in NFL history to hoist the Lombardi trophy in our own backyard as well.”
Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7 will be remembered as quarterback Tom Brady’s 10th time playing in the NFL championship game — and as the least-attended Super Bowl in history because of restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Raymond James Stadium will host just 24,700 fans, just over a third of its capacity of nearly 66,000. Of those, 7,500 will be vaccinated health care workers attending for free as guests of the league.
Still, Castor joined with the mayors of St. Petersburg and Clearwater and other officials from across the region Monday in encouraging people to come to Tampa anyway. A 72-degree day provided the backdrop for her appeal to “come on down and experience everything that the Tampa Bay region has to offer.”
“You’ll be amazed by all we’ve got here,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. “You’ll fall in love and, actually, you’ll probably end up moving here.”
Local hotels are reporting more rooms booked for Super Bowl weekend than at any time since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. The number of airline passengers are expected to double.
An army of some 8,000 people has been working round the clock to finish last-minute changes in Super Bowl plans a year in the making. There will be no face-to-face autograph sessions with NFL players this year and media day all but disappears to carry out social distancing and other mitigation measures.
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Instead of charging visitors admission to enjoy the traditional closed-door NFL Super Bowl Experience, the parties and pageantry this year are free and will be outdoors along the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and Tampa Riverwalk, Higgins said.
The city will see a heavier law enforcement presence ahead of and during the Super Bowl, Castor said, with marine patrols, bike squads and “eyes in the sky.” But ensuring that Tampa’s Super Bowl doesn’t become a super spreader event will be largely up to those in attendance, Castor said. The strategy is to encourage “personal responsibility.”
“We’re not looking at this from an enforcement viewpoint, but from an encouragement viewpoint,” she said.
That’s not necessarily an impossible task, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. He points to Walt Disney World’s Orlando theme parks, reopened to tourists without any major outbreaks.
But keeping the coronavirus out of the “Happiest Place on Earth” is a lot different than keeping it off the streets of Ybor City, Wolfson said. At Disney World, for example, plain-clothed employees now walk around the park, breaking up clusters of people before any bigger gatherings can form.
“They can do that because the buy-in is already there: you bought a ticket, you knew the rules going in, and you agreed to follow them by being there,” Wolfson said. “What neither the NFL nor the Raymond James folks can do is control what goes on outside the stadium, before or after their event, and I fear that’s where the issues will arise.”
Issues like the Buccaneers’ homecoming Sunday night at Tampa International Airport, when more than 500 fans, many unmasked, crowded the small terminal where the team would disembark their flight from Green Bay, Wis. after defeating the Packers 31-26.
Those hoping to join in the Super Bowl revelry will be expected to follow public health mandates in Tampa and throughout Hillsborough County, Castor said. Face masks are mandatory at all times in places of business, and bar and restaurant patrons must be seated at a table before removing their masks to eat or drink. The local ordinances also prohibit eating, drinking, or standing at bars, as well as congregating on dance floors.
Those rules are just as important outside too, Wolfson said. Even in balmy, breezy weather, even if you’re only passing by other groups of people, remember that the coronavirus can live in the air for 15 to 20 minutes or longer, he said. And the more bodies join a group, the less chance a beneficial breeze will carry the virus away — especially for those in the center of a cluster of people.
“If the ventilation is not very good, and a droplet from someone’s mouth lands on a smooth, non-porous surface like a table or park bench, the nuclei of the coronavirus can remain viable for more than a day,” Wolfson said. “That means a day later, if you just so happen to touch that droplet, you could still get the virus.”
People who don’t show symptoms now make up nearly 60 percent of all coronavirus infections, Wolfson said. And with even more viral variants popping up all over the country, the likelihood of running into someone carrying the disease is at an all-time high.
“That’s why we keep saying it over and over — wash your hands, don’t touch or fidget with your mask,” Wolfson said. “We know it’s not easy, and nobody likes wearing these things, but we have to do it. It’s just the only way.”
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