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OU football: Oklahoma fans, students reflect on game day amid COVID-19 — ‘We have needed this day so much’

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Cardboard cutouts

Cardboard cutouts sit in the stands before the Sooners' season opener against Missouri State on Sept. 12.

Oklahoma’s 48-0 win over Missouri State had a lot of the makings of a typical game day in Norman, Oklahoma.

The Sooner Schooner ran. The RUF/NEKS were loud. Boomer and Sooner chants were heard. The Pride of Oklahoma played after every Sooner touchdown and big play.

Still, some things were missing: about 60,000 fans were not present, for example.

The university’s limit of 25 percent capacity left Gaylord-Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium looking like a shell of what it could be — a home for over 85,000 for Sooner fans from across the country. However, just because a majority of fans couldn’t make it, the experiences of the ones that could weren't completely hindered.

Devin Newsom, an OU alum and football fan, said the game couldn’t have come at a better time for him. 

“I can honestly tell you we have needed this day so much,” Newsom said. “I’m really proud of OU for what they’ve done to make this safe, and we have worn masks and maintained distance wherever possible. 

“Overall, (we’re) really thankful to be back.”

Oklahoma issued a mandate on Aug. 25 requiring those on campus to wear surgical-style masks covering the nose and mouth. OU’s chief COVID officer Dr. Dale Bratzler touched more on the mandate in a recent interview with SportsTalk 1400’s Chris Plank.

“The stadium has been laid out with seating that will keep everybody physically distanced," Bratzler said, "Even when you go to concession areas those areas will promote physical distancing to keep people safe..."

“We know that your risk of getting this infection is greatest when you’re in close proximity to somebody and you don’t have a mask on. When somebody else is speaking or even breathing, droplets are coming out of your mouth, so that’s why we’re so strongly encouraging the wearing of masks. The only time we’re going to let people take masks off in the stadium is if they’re drinking something or eating something, but people need to stay in their masks."

Trusting those around to follow social distancing guidelines was a concern expressed many who attended the game — especially those who are the most at-risk from COVID-19.

Doug and Pam Evans, a season-ticket holding couple in their 60s from Sioux City, Iowa, drove nine hours to watch the Sooners open their season against the Bears. The couple received their tickets just a week prior to the game.

“We’ve been coming to the games for years,” Doug said. “We were in a situation of if we got the tickets, great. If we don’t, that’s okay too. (But), we’re really happy to be here.”

The Evans were impressed to “see people adhering” to the OU’s mask policy, saying they saw about 75 to 80 percent of fans wearing masks prior to the game’s opening kick. Not having to worry too much about their health, both were saddened about how the capacity limit affected students.

“We feel for the seniors,” Pam said. “And for the band members that were seniors. They always look like they’re having so much fun ... We want to come back and hope that they expand seating and let more people come in because that part’s sad.”

Nonetheless, despite a lot of fans abiding by the university’s masking protocol, not everyone was completely on board with it.

Joshua Spear, a sophomore meteorology student at OU, was upset with the low concern shown by those visiting the campus he calls home.

“I walked around campus for about 45 minutes before the game started just to see how many people showed up and what the new normal looked like for game days,” Spear said. “I was very concerned and angry seeing the huge crowds on campus corner and the lack of mask wearing.

“The university says that masks are required on campus, yet I did not see a single OUPD or Norman PD officer enforce the policy. As a student it is very frustrating to see the lack of concern. It almost seems like OU is more concerned about football than education.”

As Oklahoma’s season, along with the rest of the college football world, marches forward, the question of if it can truly adapt to a new normal will be asked time and time again. However, the answer to that question won’t come from on the field — it’ll have to come from the stands, too.

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