How Does a City Host a Super Bowl in a Pandemic?

TAMPA, Fla. — The big, national party that is Super Bowl Sunday, with families and friends cozying up on the couch and sharing shrimp platters and beers in front of the television, represents a dangerous potential for new coronavirus infections across the country.

Try being the host city.

That is the unenviable position of Tampa, Fla., which will host this weekend’s showdown between the reigning champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The city faces two seemingly opposite challenges at once: celebrating the home team’s slot in the Super Bowl, a first in National Football League history, while keeping the game from becoming an embarrassing superspreader event.

Mayor Jane Castor will have none of the downer talk. “We’ll make the best of it,” she said.

The people of Tampa — Tampanians or Tampeños, not Tampans, thank you — seem intent on having a good time.

“Thank God it’s in Tampa,” Kim Catalone, 51, declared on Wednesday night as she watched a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game with a friend at the Pint and Brew bar downtown. “Thank you, Gov. Ron DeSantis, for having Florida open to tourism and allowing such a wonderful experience to happen.”

Yes, bars are open in Florida — and they will be during Sunday’s game. Some of them are advertising watch parties, though thanks to the mild subtropical winter — the low in Tampa is forecast to be 57 degrees on Sunday — at least some of the festivities can be held outdoors. And 22,000 fans, about a third of the usual capacity of Raymond James Stadium, will be gathered in the stands.

A lockdown it is not.

Kelly Ladd, the general manager of the Pint and Brew, said the craft brewery saw a huge jump in customers last weekend after the opening of the Super Bowl Experience, a fan carnival. For Super Bowl Sunday, Ms. Ladd said, the brewery will be open for reservations only. By Wednesday, most tables had been sold.

“We’ve just been ramping up and getting ready to be as busy as possible,” she said. “It’s definitely not as crazy as it would have been, but after 2020 we’re just happy to have as much as possible going on. ”

Ms. Castor noted that Tampa had already pulled off a victory parade during the pandemic, after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in September. The Tampa Bay Rays then made the World Series in October, making Tampa the country’s undisputed sports pinnacle these days.

The virus did lead Tampa to postpone until April its annual Gasparilla festival, a pirate-themed celebration akin to Mardi Gras that would normally have taken place the last weekend in January.

“Of course, you have to have a concern: We’re in the midst of a pandemic, there’s no denying that, and it’s a virus that is easily transferable,” Ms. Castor said of the Super Bowl. “But on the other hand, it can be easily managed if people take the simple steps of wearing masks and separating when possible.”

Ahead of the game, she extended the city’s mask order to apply to outdoor areas of town where people are likely to gather.

Tampa has hosted Super Bowls in unusual circumstances before, though nothing resembling a pandemic. In 1991, the game here took place right after Operation Desert Storm, when American troops had just helped drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, forcing additional security precautions, said Steve Hayes, president and chief executive of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, one of the Tampa Bay area’s tourism boards. (Tampa Bay is a body of water, not a place; the city of Tampa is on one side of the bay, with its neighbors St. Petersburg and Clearwater on the other.) In 2009, Tampa hosted the Super Bowl after the financial crash.

Because the Bucs are in this year’s game, only about half the fans are traveling in, a benefit for virus control and a downside for hotels and restaurants hoping to make up for business lost during shutdowns. With many big-name sponsors and their clients staying away, venues that cater to business executives and the wealthiest fans are also expected to suffer.

“This region has always risen up to the challenge of adjusting to make it better,” Mr. Hayes said.

Miami hosted the Super Bowl last year in one of the last big, iconic national events before the coronavirus forced the nation to shut down the following month. This weekend’s event in Tampa is thus a milestone of sorts, an indicator of how much the world has changed in a year.

While there is no evidence to suggest it, plenty of people in Florida have long wondered whether the virus may have already been circulating at last year’s Super Bowl. Tara Kirk Sell, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who is an expert in large-scale health events, said that it was not outside the realm of possibility — but that the truth may never be known.

There have been a handful of anecdotes from attendees who recalled feeling flulike symptoms in the days afterward, but it was also flu season, and as Dr. Kirk Sell pointed out, no widespread testing for the virus was going on.

“We will never know exactly what was happening in the Super Bowl and if the virus was there,” she said.

About 7,500 of the people attending Sunday’s game will be vaccinated health care workers invited by the N.F.L. to thank them for a year of arduous work. One of them will be Rebecca Izquierdo, a 41-year-old nurse case manager at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, south of Tampa.

“I really feel like my team has risen to the many challenges of this pandemic, and it’s just so special to us that we are going to be able to be a part of history,” she said. “Not only working through this pandemic, but now the history of the Super Bowl: We’re going to see the greatest player of all time, Tom Brady, and the greatest young quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.”

(The nickname some attempted to adopt for the region after the Bucs signed Mr. Brady last year was, yes, “Tompa Bay.”)

But whatever happens Sunday in Tampa, what worries epidemiologists most is not the crowd inside the stadium but the people watching the game in their living rooms — and that concern extends well beyond Florida.

Plenty of people may feel an irresistible impulse to gather, munch and celebrate the most American of late-winter celebrations, said Dr. Marissa J. Levine, the director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

“We all need something really positive to look forward to, for our emotional and mental well-being,” Dr. Levine said. “But we need to be with our guard up.”

Lauren Adriaansen, 35, a Tampa native who lives near the football stadium — she can usually hear the cannons go off when the Bucs score — said she was happy the team was in the game but concerned about people conglomerating during and after it.

“We saw what happened when we won the Stanley Cup,” she said. “There were parades and welcoming the Cup home and everything that involved a lot of people in close proximity to one another for sustained periods of time.”

“I think that this looks like most other Super Bowls,” she said. “And as tempting as normalcy is, this isn’t a normal year.”

There were certainly crowds at the Super Bowl Experience on Wednesday. Thousands of people, mostly Bucs fans, mingled in Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. Just inside, a tall poster board listed Covid-19 regulations. Face coverings were required, and they could not have valves or vents. Face shields were not permitted unless accompanied by a face covering. Hand sanitizing stations had been set up throughout the park. Masks could be removed in dedicated concession areas while eating or drinking.

Jay Money, 31, who had traveled from the Kansas City area last week, sat alone on Wednesday afternoon drinking a Bud Light at a concession stand. To show his love for the Chiefs, Mr. Money pulled up his right sleeve to reveal an aged tattoo of the team’s logo, which he said he got when he was 13.

Watching the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl means everything to him, he said.

“It goes, like, my kids being born, and then the Chiefs going to the Super Bowl,” Mr. Money said. “It’s very significant to me.”

Amaris Castillo reported from Tampa, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami.

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