McFeely: In midst of pandemic, Bison invite 10,000 to game

NDSU athletic director says game isn't a public health risk, trusts fans will wear masks and be 'responsible' to keep others safe

North Dakota State football fans celebrate the Great West Conference championship with Bison players after their win over South Dakota State on Nov. 18, 2006 in the Fargodome. Forum file photo
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FARGO — Ten thousand seems like a lot.

Like 5,000 too many.

Maybe even 7,500 too many.

The North Dakota State football game against Central Arkansas on Oct. 3 at the Fargodome will allow 10,000 fans in the doors , the school said Tuesday, Sept. 1. The dome has a capacity of 18,700.

They must all be masked, all the time, but it's still 10,000 people gathered indoors for three hours in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.


We're still in a pandemic, right?

It isn't going to be Sturgis, S.D., but it'll be sizable. It isn't shocking (nor surprising, considering it's Bison football we're talking about), but it is concerning.

It will be the largest get-together in the state since March, when the Class A high school basketball tournament at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on the NDSU campus was suspended midstream. And that was only 3,000 or so fans getting together at one time.

At the same time North Dakotans are coming down hard on college students for spreading the virus because the kids aren't following no-gathering rules, NDSU is sanctioning a gathering of substantial proportions.

Do as we say, not as we do.

It will be 10,000 fans watching a football game indoors when North Dakota high schools are limiting attendance to a few dozen fans outdoors because of, wait for it, safety concerns.


It is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a high-risk endeavor because it's a large and lengthy indoor gathering, with people traveling from outside the area to attend.

Those people will be wearing masks, yes, and they'll have the opportunity to physically distance inside the dome. But they'll be mixing and mingling in the concourses, standing in line for concessions, using public restrooms.

And — bonus — many will be partying in bars and tailgating before the game. Alcohol will most definitely be involved, even if officially sanctioned tailgating is not allowed.

Kids, don't party. We can, but you shouldn't.

Combine these factors and what we have is a public health risk.

NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen doesn't see it that way, of course. He says the entities involved in making the decision to allow 10,000 fans into the dome — NDSU, the city of Fargo, the Fargodome and Fargo Cass Public Health — collectively decided that figure was safe and manageable given where North Dakota is with the virus.

Who stood exactly where on the safe and manageable scale is yet to be determined.

Larsen also said, when asked, that the driving factor behind the maximum attendance figure was not money. Larsen said potential revenue was not part of the discussion in agreeing on an attendance number.


Asked if he thought the game was a public health risk, Larsen said he did not. He emphasized the requirement that all fans wear masks the entire game, calling it "non-negotiable" among all those involved with the decision, and stressed all the steps NDSU and the Fargodome will take to keep the stadium sanitized.

"The reason I don't think so is because we're asking and relying on the folks who do come to the game to be responsible and that's a fair request," Larsen said. "When I go around Fargo, I see people wearing masks and doing the right things to be responsible and respectful. We 'love thy neighbor' in North Dakota and look out for one another and I think our fans will do the same."

Just to be sure, NDSU said in a press release that failing to "follow the directions of event personnel or failure to wear a mask (when not eating or drinking) could result in ticket revocation and the loss of ticket privileges."

Trust, but threaten.

Larsen said he chooses to be optimistic that fans will follow the rules. That's either creditable or naive. Some, present company included, choose to be pessimistic after watching mask-wearing become a political issue and, for some, a measure of their manliness.

"I look at it like this: If we can do this well, what does this mean for the state of North Dakota and the city of Fargo? Could it lead to other things? Could it lead to better opportunities during the basketball season or the football season next spring?" Larsen said. "I think our fans will look at it that way and do everything they can to be safe."

Central Arkansas' athletic director, for the record, is also unconcerned by having 10,000 fans in the dome. Through spokesman Brad Teague said, "That is their policy and their decision and we're fine with whatever they decide."

Ten thousand still seems like a lot.

Like way too many, by a longshot.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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