Tennessee to Host 13,000 Fans at Bowl Game Despite Biggest COVID Surge in U.S.

Coronavirus cases in Tennessee may be increasing at one of the fastest rates in the U.S. but the state will nevertheless host a bowl game later this month.

Bowl season officially got underway on Sunday with the announcement of the four College Football Playoff teams, followed by the release of the final CFP rankings, the slate for the New Year's Six games and the matchups for the remaining bowl games.

The latter include the 62nd AutoZone Liberty Bowl, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET on December 31 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis and will see Tennessee and West Virginia meet for the first time since 2018 and only the second time in history.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, organizers are planning for attendance at the Liberty Bowl to be capped at around 13,000 fans, approximately 20 percent of the venue's total capacity.

"We've been in touch with all the governmental authorities and we've been cleared to be, it's going to be approximately 12,000-13,000 fans in attendance," Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the Liberty Bowl, was quoted as saying by Memphis-based newspaper The Commercial Appeal.

"We have tickets available. We're selling tickets now. There'll still be masking required and social distancing. We have pods of two, four and six people set around the stadium."

Games behind closed doors or in front of a very limited audience have been commonplace in college football and across America's sporting landscape since the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S. back in March. The decision to allow fans at the Liberty Bowl, however, is nevertheless striking given the mounting tally of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee.

Tennessee Volunteers helmet
A Tennessee Volunteers helmet seen on the sidelines during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on November 7 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Volunteers 24-13. Wesley Hitt/Getty

As of Monday morning, almost 520,000 cases of coronavirus and 6,071 deaths have been reported in the state, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the outbreak using combined data sources.

California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania are the only U.S. states to have recorded more cases than Tennessee.

According to figures from the Tennessee Department of Health, on December 20 there were 11,383 new positive cases and 47 deaths, respectively a 94-percent increase and 55-percent increase over a 14-day period.

The number of hospitalized patients, meanwhile, stood at 2,978, a 14 percent increase over the same window.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Tennessee identified cases at the highest per capita rate in the U.S.—when adjusted for population—over the past week.

On Sunday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced public gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people and urged Tennesseans to spend Christmas only with people from their households to minimize the spread of the virus.

"We are in a cold, cruel phase of this pandemic," he said in a video address. "It will get worse before it gets better. I know you are tired. But we have got to double down."

Significantly, however, Lee, who described Tennessee as "ground zero" in the battle against coronavirus, stopped short of announcing a state-wide mask mandate.

Tennessee is among the dozen states not to have enforced a mask mandate, with the option to implement mask restrictions left to each individual county.

Lee's announcement came on the same day the Memphis Grizzlies announced no fans will be allowed at the FedEx Forum for the foreseeable future.

The arena hosted hundreds of fans for the Grizzlies' final two preseason games against the Atlanta Hawks and the team was one of seven NBA franchises planning to welcome a limited number of fans during the regular season.

The plans, however, have now been shelved, with the Grizzlies and the Memphis Tigers' men basketball team confirming they will play behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.

"In consultation with FedExForum, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Shelby County Health Department, University of Memphis athletics feels that it is in the best interest of our fans and our community to play our upcoming basketball games without fans," Tigers athletic director Laird Veatch said in a statement.

"We look forward to our loyal fans returning when conditions allow."

As of Monday morning, over 17.4 million cases of coronavirus had been reported in the U.S and almost 317,700 deaths of the over 1.69 fatalities recorded worldwide so far.

There have been almost 76.9 million confirmed cases globally since the outbreak of coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, a city located in China's central Hubei province, late last year.