Athletic departments celebrate looser restrictions for game attendance

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: October 07, 2020 6:07 AM CT | Published: October 06, 2020 12:13 PM CT
<strong>Tigers fans sit masked and socially distanced during the Tigers' home opener against Arkansas State at the Liberty Bowl Sept. 5, 2020.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Tigers fans sit masked and socially distanced during the Tigers' home opener against Arkansas State at the Liberty Bowl Sept. 5, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

The Shelby County Health Department is adjusting the distance between fans at sporting events to 6 feet, while allowing restaurants to stay open until midnight, officials announced Tuesday.

In addition to the extended hours for restaurants, diners may sit eight to a table, up from the previous six. Officials emphasized, however, that those businesses must continue to enforce social distancing requirements, including that all wear masks.

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The new rules go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. For the University of Memphis, capacity at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium will increase to 12,000 on Oct. 17, when the Tigers play the University of Central Florida, a difference of potentially 7,500 more fans.

“We’d like to thank our partners at the Shelby County Health Department for keeping the health and safety of our Memphis community at the center of every conversation,” athletic director Laird Veatch said in a statement. 

“Their approach has been pragmatic and thoughtful, with truly the best interest of our citizens at heart. I can’t wait to have more fans in attendance contributing to the game-day environment for our student-athletes during such an important matchup in our season.”

The increase was possible, he said, because Tigers fans did well complying with safety protocols at the last game.

“We know everyone will be a team player and keep Tiger nation safe and COVID free,” Veatch said.

While the Health Department is responsible for enforcement, director Alisa Haushalter said it relies heavily on university and other school officials to monitor distancing and other safety protocols at sporting events.

Across the county, athletic departments celebrated the news.

At Christian Brothers High School, the changes increase football stadium capacity from 350 to nearly 1,000 spectators, said athletic director Mike Kelly.

“That assumes there are four people per cohort,” he said.

“It will increase our gate and concessions revenue by more than 150% per game.”

For indoor events, including basketball and wrestling, spectator capacity will nearly double.

“What’s more is the fan and player experience,” Kelly said. “Enabling us to decrease existing restrictions on attendance allows more family and community members to enjoy the game alongside our athletes and vastly improves the game atmosphere for all in attendance.”

County health leaders have come under pressure to change the local restrictions after Gov. Bill Lee opened up the state last week. The local health department is one of six metro departments in the state that has its own jurisdiction, separate from the state’s. As such, Shelby County Health Department authorities have autonomy over when restrictions are eased.

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Haushalter said several factors contributed to the change, including better local data collection and the fact that test results are now back in one to three days, which makes case investigations more efficient.

Initially, the distance for spectators at indoor events was 18 feet. When it changed to 12 feet, Health Department officials saw no uptick in transmission rates, making it reasonable to decrease the separation to 6 feet among spectator groups, she said.

U of M football season ticket holders who chose the “donate” option in the #KeepMemphisRoaring campaign will be reseated, according to the new guidelines.

Under the new rules, all “donate” participants will receive tickets for the remainder of the games. Season ticket holders who choose to credit their tickets to the 2021 season will receive first priority for buying single-game tickets. 

Fans will receive an email this week outlining the new process. 

Single-game tickets will be available, starting Friday, at GoTigersGoTix.com or by calling the ticket office at (901) 678-2331. 

Tailgating is still not permitted. Concession stands will be open. Fans must wear masks at all times on the property.

The only businesses that have not been allowed to reopen since the shutdown are close-contact adult entertainment businesses and events that require permits for parades or rallies.

For several weeks, the Health Department has said it will close businesses that do not comply with the regulations, noting Tuesday that it has teams out on weekends monitoring businesses.

“We really strive to educate business owners, stay engaged with them and provide technical assistance, but for those who elect to be non-compliant to the health directive, we will close those facilities,” Haushalter said. “And they will remain closed for approximately a two-week period or until such time that they have a plan approved by the Health Department.”


Shelby County Health Department coronavirus Health directives Restaurants sports events
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.

Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey, a lifelong Memphian, has worked as a reporter in the city four decades. He concentrated on suburban coverage for the bulk of his career, except for a stint as sports editor of The Daily Memphian when it launched in September 2018. He now is suburban editor and also serves as a freelance sports writer for The Associated Press.


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