MSU Football Returns Saturday. East Lansing Is Bracing for Impact.

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

There will be almost no people in Spartan Stadium, which seats 70,000-plus people, for games this season.

For the first time in 2020, Michigan State University will host a football game when the Spartans play Rutgers at noon on Saturday.

There will be no fans in Spartan Stadium besides some family of players and coaches. Tailgating is not allowed on campus. Restaurants in East Lansing are restricted to 50-percent capacity.

“I don’t think anybody has ever been through something like this in the City of East Lansing,” Mayor Aaron Stephens said. “So we’re — we’re taking it as it is.” 

And from the Mayor to downtown business owners, there’s excitement to have a cornerstone of East Lansing life return. 

But, for the first time in memory, there’s genuine apprehension about the ripple effect a home football Saturday will have during an ongoing global pandemic.

What is gameday going to look like?

Come Saturday, MSU’s campus will be almost unrecognizable compared to a regular home gameday. 

Raymond Holt for ELi

Spartan Stadium will still host MSU football in 2020, just later than previously anticipated and with only a few hundred people in attendance.

MSU has nixed tailgating on campus this season, and according to MSU Police Captain Chris Rozman, parking lots where it normally occurs will be barricaded and observed by event staff to curtail anyone trying to tailgate. Additionally, more officers will be patrolling campus.

Normally when the parking lots are open for tailgating, Rozman said, MSU’s campus rule prohibiting open alcohol containers in public is relaxed. But with the lots closed, the open container rule remains strictly in place.

The goal is to deter people from coming from out of town to congregate and prevent any gatherings on campus, in general.

“We’ve actually seen really good compliance on campus,” Rozman said in regards to MSU’s community compact. “And we’re focused on an education first approach to this whole challenge.”

With MSU’s rules, there’s concern that gameday activity will shift to the north side of Grand River Avenue. 

One reader emailed ELi earlier this week asking about Saturday: “Are people coming to town? (Roving bands of drunks? Helter skelter parking? No masks? Not being able to go out again for another 2.5 wks? My hood is at the edge of the mask zone.) I want to know what to expect.”

Contributed by an ELi reader

A St. Patrick’s Day party on Gunson Street in March 2020, when MSU went to all-online classes.

On a home football Saturday, the activity among students and people in general is usually heightened — and a boon for businesses. 

“It’s a huge economic boost to businesses that have been suffering for months and months of time,” Stephens said. 

On a normal gameday, local bars and restaurants are packed with lines of people waiting to get in. That cannot happen on Saturday.

Bell, the owner of The Peanut Barrel, said his first concern is keeping his staff safe. Beyond that, it’s preventing lines of people forming outside and, hopefully, turning a profit. The Peanut Barrel will have additional people working to manage lines on Saturday, Bell said, taking reservations and notifying people their table is ready via an app. 

Gary Caldwell for ELi.

Servers wearing masks as they serve lunch at the Peanut Barrel.

Ideally, once people have their name submitted they can walk around downtown and perhaps patronize another local business while they wait, Bell said. Mike Krueger, the owner of Crunchy’s, said his restaurant will use a similar system where one person comes in to place a reservation and the crowds can disperse and be summoned as their table is ready.

Bell is skeptical that everyone will trust the app, causing a line to form, meaning his staff needs to deal with it. The City, Bell said, informed him that he’d be responsible for lines leading into his place, even if they were on public property. 

Restaurants are also limited to 50-percent capacity, which makes turning a profit more challenging — especially so if someone plans to watch the whole football game and their table can’t be turned over for a new party of customers. 

“You kind of scratch your head and go, ‘Oh, I wonder what that’ll do to the bottom line.’ Cause we’re pretty small to begin with,” Bell said. “But you know what, we’re going to do it. We’re going to find out. I mean, it may just be — it may just work out beautifully.”

Any uptick in activity is welcomed by Krueger and Bell, so long as people behave themselves and not make their staff shoulder unnecessary work.

Crunchy’s, owned by Mike Krueger, on West Grand River Avenue.

But young people, alcohol, and a home football game isn’t a combination that always leads to good individual decision-making.

“We’re nervous, but excited,” Krueger said. “It’s just one of those things that we’re just going to have to wait and see how this first game goes and make the necessary changes to our procedures not only as a restaurant, but as a city in general.”

How is the City (and MSU) gearing up?

The City of East Lansing has already dealt with a fair share of Covid-19-related issues specific to the off-campus student population — despite a majority behaving responsibly, from most accounts. From the outbreak linked to Harper’s in June to spikes in cases since the academic year began, irresponsible behavior from students living off campus has driven many of East Lansing’s issues with Covid-19

Alice Dreger for ELi

The line outside Harper’s on Friday, June 19, 2020. The owners opted to close to try to eliminate the lines with new technology.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail restricted the size of gatherings in student-heavy areas near campus in August, and Council adopted a mask mandate for the Downtown Development Authority area.

Even still, risky behaviors persisted, and on Tuesday, Oct. 14, Council adopted a resolution making it a civil infraction with a $500 fine to violate a public health order. By the next Monday, three violations had been issued with a fourth pending, according to Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez.

It remains unknown if the bigger stick the City now swings will prevent gatherings. Dr. Chistina Dejong, an associate professor of criminal justice at MSU, has spent less time in East Lansing while teaching remotely. She does, however, frequently drive downtown to pick up her son, Max, from work.

“When I’m in East Lansing, I see a lot of students behaving like nothing has really changed. I see a lot of students outside, and outside is good,” Dejong said, “but large numbers of them” are congregating with few masks and little distancing. 

“As a criminal justice professor,” she later said, “I suppose I would point out that increasing penalties doesn’t necessarily change behavior. So a more severe penalty is not likely to deter bad behavior.”

Gonzalez said the police will be staffed and patrolling on Saturday as if it were a normal game day. They will be on the lookout for things like large gatherings and health order violations while still responding to normal calls for service.

Gonzalez admitted that ELPD doesn’t really know what to expect the first home football weekend.

“If you have a crystal ball and can see the future, we’d take that to heart,” Gonzalez said. He added that after this first week they will adjust their staffing plans for future game days accordingly.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez at the Feb. 27, 2020, meeting of City Council.

Additionally, MSU has been referring off-campus violations by students — sent to them by ELPD — to the Student Conduct System. On Saturday, Rozman said, the university will have student conduct officials riding with MSUPD to respond directly to student gatherings or other malfeasance. Suspensions stemming from that, Dejong said, can be much more effective.

“If they hear of a large gathering that involves students or noncompliance,” Rozman said, “we can actually take the MSU student conduct officials there to kind of see with their own eyes what’s occurring and potentially document any student code of conduct violations.”

On Tuesday morning, Stephens, along with Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and 10 other mayors representing 11 total Big Ten towns, sent a letter to the league making two requests

The mayors ask that the league give as much advance notice as possible on kickoff times while avoiding playing primetime games and they’re asking that the Big Ten create a population positivity rate threshold for the hometowns of each school. This would measure the rate of positive individuals against the at-risk population in a town to determine if it is safe to play a game. Currently, the league is calculating this for the population of players, coaches and staff that will be in the stadium.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Thanks to the pandemic, Grand River Ave. is less of a divider than it used to be.

Both measures are also being advocated for by the health officials for Big Ten cities, Vail said on Tuesday, Oct. 20, during a press conference. The group met on Oct. 15, and wants the Big Ten to set positivity rate thresholds for each town to determine if the game will be played or not.

“We would like them to set that benchmark,” Vail said. 

Council member Ron Bacon spoke at a recent meeting of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (the undergraduate student government) and spoke directly to the need for MSU students to handle this situation responsibly. He’s spoken frequently of the need to show the “brand” of MSU and East Lansing in a good light and his conversation with the student government was similar. 

“I would just ask them to just understand the historical context of what’s going on and I completely appreciate their desire to enjoy their college experience and do that thing,” Bacon said. “But they’re being called by just — it’s just a historic moment. There’s no way around it.”

With so much unknown, apprehension persists

Normally the concerns about MSU football game days are things like lack of parking, early morning noise complaints from students tailgating and whether the Spartans will win.

Saturday’s game brings a new level of worry.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, who also runs Seams Fabric in downtown East Lansing, called the decision to play Big Ten football this fall “irresponsible.” 

“I’m pretty mad at the Big Ten,” Gregg said in September, adding that the Big Ten wasn’t being sensitive to locales trying to deal with Covid. 

And with hospitalizations rising in Ingham County as recently as last week, Gregg’s point resonates. 

Gary Caldwell for ELi

East Lansing’s downtown clock tower sports signs urging people to “stay safe to stay open.”

Vail noted on Tuesday that currently the 48823 ZIP code, which includes a majority of East Lansing but not campus, has the highest rate of Covid cases in the county. Data shows that the MSU outbreak from September is trailing off, Vail said, but there was an “incredible level of transmission in the community” then. 

This weekend presents an inflection point: Can the cases continue to drop off or will there be another spike? 

“I like the energy around town on the football days, but we’ve continued to have to make tough decisions with how we hang out with people,” Council member Dana Watson said. “And we want to make it through. We want our numbers to reduce and things to get better so that we can hang out with a bunch of people like we like too. But, that’s just not a healthy option right now.”

On Halloween, the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor for a showdown with Michigan. Even though the game isn’t in East Lansing, Bacon said that could be the “apex” of the challenge.

Bacon is “hopeful” the collective efforts in place can work, so long as people buy in.

“We need their cooperation,” he said. “We will enforce the rules, but it’s better if they cooperate and are proactive and help us to enforce the rules.”

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