The lingering presence of the coronavirus pandemic has long shadowed over what may happen to LSU's iconic game day atmosphere this football season, and the university's athletic department announced limitations Wednesday that were somewhat expected.
Tiger Stadium will start the 2020 season with a 25% capacity limit, according to LSU's newly released procedures and guidelines, which also say tailgating will not be allowed this year.
The decision ensures the campus environment will be very different in an unprecedented year, and that nostalgic areas and traditional events, including the football team's "Tiger Walk" down Victory Hill, will be absent in a college football season that still must face several logistical obstacles to complete.
LSU was the 12th team in the Southeastern Conference to announce similar capacity plans. Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt remain. The official announcement comes a day after Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters he supported placing a limit of 25% on Tiger Stadium this season. The moving target of public health trends required a patient approach, several school officials said.
In a summer that has seen major conferences postpone fall sports, elite players opt-out and several teams halt practices because of outbreaks among players, the public now has a more complete view of what college football will look like when LSU begins its 10-game, league-only season by hosting Mississippi State at 2:30 p.m.on Sept. 26.
"The most important thing is that we're scheduled to play football," athletic director Scott Woodward said. "That's a reason for celebration."
Conversations between the Governor's Office, LSU leadership and public health officials produced substantial limitations for college football to even occur in Baton Rouge.
Woodward told WNXX-FM, 104.5 that Tiger Stadium's capacity was not dictated by Louisiana's re-opening phases. It was a "one-off," Woodward said, a unique circumstance that depended on what public heath officials said.
LSU could possibly pivot during the season, Woodward said. If trends change negatively, stadium capacity could shrink; if positive, it could expand. Interim LSU president Tom Galligan told reporters Wednesday he doesn't expect capacity to change, but he's learned that with COVID-19 protocols, "anything can change at any time and pretty darn fast."
For now, the limitations inside Tiger Stadium are clear.
Single-game tickets won't be available for purchase. The estimated 25,000 people who will be allowed into the stadium will mostly be made up of season-ticket holders and students. Students will have to prove they tested negatively for COVID-19 to enter, Galligan said, in a program that will be finalized later.
The Golden Band from Tigerland will be downsized. Instruments will be covered to shield spittle. Band members will be restricted from performing on the field before games and at halftime. Visiting bands, per SEC policy, won't be allowed to travel at all.
Outside Tiger Stadium, LSU has banned people from bringing tents, trailers, televisions, outdoor cooking equipment, generators and other tailgating equipment.
All parking lots, including free lots, will require a permit. Unused parking lots will be closed, barricaded and not permitted for public use. One lot will be designated for motor homes and RVs, but social gatherings and tailgating will not be permitted in the lot, which will open at 6 p.m. on Fridays.
Campus will mostly be shut down to visitors on game days: Buildings and bathrooms on campus will be closed, and portable restrooms will be limited.
Fans are required to remain socially distant (6 feet apart) and wear masks covering their nose and mouth while on campus and inside Tiger Stadium, LSU's plan says, although masks may be removed temporarily while consuming food and beverages.
LSU is allowing people to bring one 32-ounce or smaller bottle of water into the stadium. There will be a limited number of concession stands, which will offer a simplified menu with only pre-packaged items.
Such requirements follow the SEC's league-wide game day policy that it released in August. Physical distancing will be mandatory in all areas, including lines for stadium entry, restrooms and concessions. All transactions will be cashless. There will be no paper tickets.
The SEC required schools to ensure physical distancing if stadium shuttles were to be used, but LSU announced they will not be using shuttles at this time. Parking lots will be consolidated to those near Tiger Stadium.
Questions exist on how LSU might enforce its policies.
Galligan told reporters Wednesday morning he believes the most effective way is repeatedly getting the message out before LSU's season begins.
Enforcement still could go further. LSU senior associate athletic director Robert Munson said the university will have an organized staff specifically dedicated to monitor masks and social distancing.
The first steps will involve education and reminders, then enforcement increases afterward, although Galligan wasn't specific with details.
"If we have to enforce it, our first enforcement measures will be gentle and persuasive," Galligan said. "If we have to be more forceful, we will. But I hope we don't."
Even with Tiger Stadium at quarter-capacity, Galligan said LSU officials are confident fans will be able to keep 6 feet apart.
Woodward briefly mentioned on WNXX a "pod" seating arrangement that Brian Broussard, LSU's director of ticket operations, has organized. The idea involves spacing groups of fans out across Tiger Stadium to maintain distance.
LSU's plan said its ticket office will work to seat single ticket holders and groups of up to about eight people as close to their original seat locations as possible.
The student section will still remain in the north end zone, and students will be grouped with assigned seating for physical distancing.
LSU announced its commitment to season-ticket holders and students in July, when the university said the two groups would be prioritized if stadium reductions occur. At the time, LSU said season-ticket holders who want to opt out of the 2020 season will still be able to retain their seats for 2021. The deadline to opt out is Friday.
LSU said it anticipates all who opt out "will get at least a portion of their ticket allocation."
The number of tickets available to fans from other schools "will be substantially limited," Galligan said. Woodward said only 500 tickets are allowed for visiting teams. Galligan added it will be difficult to control situations such as LSU alums who live in other states but have season tickets.
The terms for a game day have been set, and Galligan is still confident that LSU can continue to have a memorable environment on Saturdays.
"There’s a magic in the air in Tiger Stadium, and that magic is contagious, but not in a negative way," Galligan said. "It is a whole lot more magic with 105,000 people but there’s going to be magic with 25,000, and that’s a whole lot more magic than with no football at all. But, again, safety’s our guidepost. So yes, it will still be Tiger Stadium, but like life has come to be, it will be different.”