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Penn State prepares for first home football game as coronavirus cases on campus fall and concern mounts

Penn State will play the first of four home games against archrival Ohio State on Halloween night. Its first away game of the season this past weekend already triggered unsafe student behavior.

A Penn State student looks over test results after visiting the university's COVID-19  walk-up testing site at the Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, Pa., on Oct. 21, 2020.
A Penn State student looks over test results after visiting the university's COVID-19 walk-up testing site at the Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, Pa., on Oct. 21, 2020.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For the Inquirer

STATE COLLEGE — Two months into the semester, students at Pennsylvania State University have settled into a pandemic-altered experience, where they cross campus with masks on and have far fewer in-person classes and little formal interaction.

“Now, the only place we really come is the library,” said Haylie McSwaney, 21, a junior from Pittsburgh, as she sat outside it studying last week.

The restrictions and mitigation efforts appear to be working, university officials say, noting that since late September, active coronavirus cases on campus have fallen. But local hospitalizations are up and questions swirl about whether cases on campus have spilled into the rest of Centre County, which has become a virus hot spot for Pennsylvania.

President Eric Barron said he is cautiously optimistic the school will make it to Thanksgiving without having to revert to all remote instruction.

Now comes football.

In what some worry is the eeriest of perfect storms, Penn State will play the first of four home games against archrival Ohio State on Halloween night.

Even though Penn State has forbidden tailgating on its property, is allowing only players’ family in the stadium and is actively discouraging alumni from visiting and students from gathering, Ronald Filippelli, mayor of State College borough, is worried. Hotel bookings are way down, but Airbnb rentals are up for next weekend. And he thinks some students will gather off campus, start drinking in the morning and continue through the game.

“My worst fear is that Ohio State will lose,” said Filippelli, 81, a retired Penn State professor and associate dean, “and that all these students are going to pour out of those apartments and houses and fraternities and go downtown in a mass spreader event to celebrate.”

He’s seen it happen after other big games.

And as Saturday’s season opener at Indiana showed, even away games can pose problems. State College police on Saturday had to break up a gathering of more than 200 people in the courtyard of an off-campus apartment building who appeared not to be socially distancing or wearing masks. They had come together to watch the Penn State game. It was one of multiple large events police responded to, said borough manager Tom Fountaine.

In a statement Sunday, Penn State called the conduct of those who participated “reckless and irresponsible,” and said it is working with the borough to understand what landlords may be able to do to help minimize such behavior.

“It is an experiment,” Barron said last week of restarting football amid COVID-19. “It’s an experiment that a lot of people have encouraged. But after the Ohio State game, we may wonder about how this is going to work.”

Football’s a campus staple

In normal times, tailgaters line hundreds of acres of university farm fields and parking lots on game day. Grills are fired up early, and liquids pour. Students and alumni skip from tailgate to tailgate, mingling with friends, old and new. Those without tickets watch on big-screen TVs. Others head into the stadium, which can hold more than 106,000 fans — more than the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field.

» READ MORE: Penn State homecoming brings the hoopla

Football has long been one of the strongest ties between alumni and the university, building momentum from their undergraduate time through decades and generations. Its loss this fall has been keenly felt.

“It’s such a big part of Penn State that it’s hard to go without,” said Samantha Roberto, 19, a sophomore from Collegeville.

Presidents in the Big Ten Conference, including Barron, initially decided to put off football, concerned that they couldn’t keep athletes safe. But then with the availability of more tests, presidents reconsidered and decided to start the season in late October, with few in the stadium. Barron said he supported the plan to give student athletes the playing opportunity they deserve.

» READ MORE: Big Ten football is back as league votes to start the season in late October

“We came to the conclusion we could do this safely,” he said.

The announcement met with trepidation and elation.

“I’m excited for football to start," said student Lauren Alexander, 20, of State College, “but I’m also scared as hell.”

As a student resident hall adviser, she has seen some students follow rules and others not. She got herself tested for the virus last week because she was worried about exposure to a student who had been partying.

» READ MORE: Penn State students party outside freshman dorms

Others were more optimistic.

“The majority of students will do their part to help maintain social distancing and find ways to interact with those who they live with so as not to spread the virus,” said student body president Zachary McKay, 21, of Pittsburgh.

When family members asked vice president Lexy Pathickal, a senior from Yardley, if they could come for the game, she said:

"This weekend of all weekends, seriously, no, you’re not coming.”

Many students interviewed on the 47,000-student campus said they will watch the game at home. But some also worry about returning alumni, including recent graduates who may envision staying with friends on or near campus.

“That’s how many of them always have done it,” said Sarah Townsend, an associate professor who has criticized Penn State’s virus response plan. “The bars and restaurants are counting on that.”

Businesses rely on football weekends to bring in a lot of revenue. Even with 10,300 students living on campus and thousands more in the community, many businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, are struggling. Hotels are less than half full for Ohio State game night and rooms are going for an average of $115 compared to at least $500 during a regular season, said Fritz Smith, president and CEO of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, the local tourism agency. Earlier this month, Airbnb rentals in the State College area for that weekend were up about 26% from the week before, he said.

» READ MORE: As students return, the business community fights to survive

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Edward Tubbs, chief operating officer of the Hospitality Asset Management Company, which runs six hotels in the State College area.

His hotels are at 30% capacity, he said. Usually, they’re full and booked a year in advance for a big home football game, he said.

A call for more testing

One day last week, students entered the glass-enclosed Pegula Ice Arena, which the school converted to a coronavirus testing site. Inside, workers in medical scrubs, masks and face shields walked around tables spaced apart.

Justin Lee, a junior from northern Virginia, said he has opted to be tested nearly every week since the semester began.

“I want to make sure that I’m not spreading it,” he said after taking a spit test.

» READ MORE: How Philly-area colleges are planning to test students and staff for coronavirus

Penn State has administered nearly 50,000 tests since the semester started, but some faculty, residents and students say that isn’t enough. Faculty senate members are concerned that bringing back football could reverse the downward trend in cases, just as students are about to return to their families and home communities for Thanksgiving.

Earlier this month, the senate called on the university to make on-campus testing available to all students and staff, increase random testing and require all students and staff to be tested before returning for spring semester.

Before fall semester, the university tested about 30,000 students and staff across its 24 campuses who came from virus hot spots. The school has continued to offer on-demand testing to students who have symptoms or have had potential exposure, and randomly tests 1% of students and staff daily.

Barron said testing plans for spring haven’t been finalized, but all students will have the option of getting tested before leaving campus for Thanksgiving.

While advocating for more testing, Beth Seymour, faculty senate chair, defended the university’s efforts to keep the campus and community safe, a job that has been unfairly thrust upon it.

“I feel that we’re relying on our educational institutions to provide public health when we’ve been defunding them for decades,” she said.

Hospitalizations up

Since the semester began, Penn State’s University Park campus has reported 3,657 coronavirus cases and earlier this month, more than 500 were active. As of Friday, there were 238 active cases — a slight uptick from Tuesday. Far fewer students are in isolation and quarantine on campus.

But hospitalizations have been on the rise. Mount Nittany Medical Center had 16 patients in September, with an average of two inpatients per day, said spokesperson Anissa Rupert Ilie. As of Oct. 20, there have been 26, with an average of eight per day, she said. Most are not college age.

“We virtually had no problems in this county until they brought all these kids back,” said Joseph Mogus, 70, a Penn State alumnus who retired to Centre County.

University officials have said there has been no evidence of transmission from students to staff, or the community. Only 2% of nearly 1,500 county residents whose blood was drawn through the end of September had virus antibodies, showing they had been exposed, said Matthew Ferrari, a Penn State associate professor and infectious-disease expert, who is part of a research team looking at the impact on the community.

The state health department says it’s hard to know if campus cases are being transmitted to the community.

“In the vast majority of cases, there is no way of knowing exactly how someone contracted COVID-19,” said spokesperson Nate Wardle.

The borough instituted an ordinance limiting social gatherings and requiring mask-wearing. Since mid-August, 76 citations have been issued. The university recently gave its police power to enforce mask-wearing on campus. The vast majority of students were complying last week during walks through campus.

But Filippelli worries unsafe behavior could occur after a football victory.

“We’re hopeful that it doesn’t happen," said Fountaine, the borough manager, "but we will be prepared if it does.”