State College braces for Penn State football as the coronavirus rages

Inside each freezer, kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius, are white boxes that can hold samples of the West Nile virus, H5N1 avian influenz...

Inside each freezer, kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius, are white boxes that can hold samples of the West Nile virus, H5N1 avian influenza, tularemia. In May, a new shipment arrived: clear screw-top tubes with samples of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus and the source of a global pandemic. This invisible menace, transmitted by tiny aerosols primarily when humans gather, has so far infected nearly 9 million Americans and ended nearly 228,000 lives.

Past these walls, through the locked gate, across the fields and throughout campus, people are bracing. Football is coming, and so are gatherings, starting Saturday night, when one of the nation’s best teams, Ohio State, comes to town. There’s a university president who’s afraid of what that could mean. A sports-obsessed epidemiologist refusing to watch. Players with upended lives. The owner of an iconic bar who’s worried about killing someone. A mayor who believes the best thing for his city, one whose economy is built on football, is for the home team to lose.

But inside the Pell Lab, there is little concern. Though the people here know the coronavirus exists within these walls, there are barriers. There is protection. There’s respect. It is, they know, the only place at Penn State where the coronavirus is truly contained.

The president feels the pressure

Last month, Penn State President Eric J. Barron voted “yes” to Big Ten football a few weeks after he and other conference presidents had voted “no,” sparking backlash and division. He’s confident in the conference’s plan, which requires players and coaches to be tested six times per week. If someone tests positive, safety protocols would mitigate spread, at least throughout the football facility.

Besides, Barron says now, Nittany Lions football is an important part of the culture here. A critical part of the student and alumni experience. And a massive chunk of the economic pie, on and off campus. If football season had been postponed, the Big Ten’s 14 affiliates would’ve each lost some $100 million in revenue. Penn State draws nearly $80 million into State College’s local economy.

“Finances were going to be a catastrophe,” Barron says. “I’ve got one person on a shoulder saying: ‘Open up full-bore; fill the stadium, fill the classrooms.’ I have on my other shoulder: ‘Don’t you dare.’ ”

To discourage fans from gathering, the Big Ten will play in empty stadiums. Penn State even banned tailgating. Before students returned for in-person classes, the school required them to pledge to wear face coverings and avoid crowds. State College has instituted ordinances that require masks in public places and prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people.

But Barron realizes where he is and who he’s dealing with. Penn State is the most populous part of Centre Country and among the state’s most politically divided communities. The Borough of State College has issued more than 70 citations to individuals who refuse to wear masks, and a local Wendy’s was temporarily shut down for repeatedly violating the mask ordinance. Arguments between business owners and customers, locals say, have become increasingly common.

Days after classes resumed, students gathered outside a freshman dorm to chant and dance. A fraternity threw a party. Recently a cluster of young men gathered at a house in College Heights, with a sign in the yard — “You honk, we drink” — with a flag declaring it “RONA SEASON.”

“You’re talking about 18- to 24-year-olds,” says Barron, sitting on the veranda of Schreyer House, the university president’s palatial residence.

Just down the lane, there’s a house that Barron says is unoccupied all year. Someone owns it just for use on football game days. Hundreds gather to watch and toast the Nittany Lions, and though Barron supported the return of football, he can’t help wondering what else he condoned, even encouraged, with his vote.

“So just by virtue of having that game, do we promote watch parties all over the place?” he says. “Will that happen each and every game?”

“Should I worry about that?”

A scientist shuts out sports

It’s a Friday morning, two weeks before kickoff, and Nita Bharti pedals into the parking lot at Beaver Stadium. Lowering her bike into an empty space and rolling up her right shirt sleeve, she figures this is the closest she’ll get to a football stadium this year.

“Have you had a flu shot before?” a woman in scrubs asks.

Ever?” Bharti says. Of course she has. She snaps a selfie as the needle goes in.

A lifelong sports fan, Bharti spent the early part of the pandemic watching old games or episodes of “The Last Dance.” At night, her television is almost always tuned to ESPN. But she’s also a Penn State biology professor and epidemiologist who studies community spread of infectious diseases. She watched as Seattle scrambled, as New York panicked, as Florida rebelled. She grew anxious as Americans flouted recommendations to mask up and avoid crowds, choosing the illusion of normal life over discipline and common sense.

Then, six weeks ago, the Big Ten announced it would play football.

Among Bharti’s earliest memories are Saturday afternoons with friends gathering and college football playing on the television. She grew up in Detroit, the daughter of an immigrant from India who believed few things are more American than cheering on the Michigan Wolverines. Her dad’s old college roommates became young Nita’s de facto uncles, and his team became hers. She went to Michigan and went to games at “The Big House.” She sang “Hail to the Victors” and could feel her fist almost instinctively pump when everyone shouted “Hail!”

Bharti moved to New York and then State College, where she earned a PhD and took a job as a professor. It was taxing, and there were times Bharti could feel her identity slipping away. She shelved hobbies, most notably drawing, and sometimes forgot to call friends.

But Michigan kept playing football, fall after fall, and long after graduation, college football isn’t just about the games. It’s about what those games remind you to do: reconnect with old roommates, friends who’ll cheer or complain with you, the people who introduced you to the team or took you to your first game.

They reminded Bharti to text her dad, now 75. No matter the score, no matter the size of the stack of papers Bharti had to grade or the magnitude of some faraway death toll, a daughter and her father could pause long enough to lament missed tackles or poor ball security or a dud of a game plan.

“A nice sort of detachment from my regular world,” she says.

A few weeks after Penn State resumed classes, Centre County, which for five months had largely avoided major spikes, had Pennsylvania’s highest positivity and incidence rates. The county’s only hospital, Mount Nittany Medical Center, deployed its “surge capacity plan” and dedicated 21 beds to a coronavirus ward. Two weeks ago, nine of those beds were occupied. A week later it was 15. The next-closest hospital is 30 miles away.

“We already know not to do the f—— s— that we did,” Bharti says. “And it’s a tragedy. The fact that we couldn’t get our act together to change our behavior in the face of a pandemic — it’s stupid. We knew.”

Bharti decided to boycott college football, and that would include Michigan. She told herself it’d be easy. No different from when she gave up drawing years earlier or when she chose in late March to keep herself and her neighbors healthy over working out at the gym and eating out at her local bar. She told herself she needed to work on Saturdays anyway.

She and old friends would have to find a different topic to discuss. She’d need to find a different reason to text her dad. She told herself ignoring the Wolverines was the right thing to do.

“I’ll probably figure out how much joy it brings me versus how much angst,” Bharti says. “I’ll probably figure out how much …”

“How much,” she says, “I maybe don’t need that.”

Athletes hold the line (for now)

Six mornings a week, the first thing Judge Culpepper, a Penn State defensive tackle, does is report to the football complex for a coronavirus test. A positive test would mean he’s sidelined for 21 days. If he’s negative, Culpepper can head to the weight room, then class, then back to the facility for practice. He returns to his apartment a little after 7 p.m.

“Come home, do homework and repeat the process,” he says.

Even under normal circumstances, the college football routine is unrelenting. Players receive a scholarship and a chance to play, and in exchange they give up some of the traditional college experience. This year, those sacrifices are starker.

A few weeks ago, Culpepper says, Penn State players met to discuss what it will take to play this season. He says no coaches were involved. Players agreed to avoid bars, parties and the wider campus community — anyone who isn’t on the football team. A violation, Culpepper says, leads to a one-week suspension imposed by teammates. A repeat offender is unwelcome at the facility.

Culpepper, whose roommates are football players, says family also must be kept at a distance. If his parents visit from Florida, he says, they must test negative or acknowledge there can be no physical contact. This, he and other players say, is what it takes.

“Other than my teammates,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher says, “I’m not going to be around you at all.”

Players insist the sacrifices are worth it. But there are frustrations. Culpepper was named to last year’s academic all-Big Ten team. He says he enjoys lectures, PowerPoint presentations, a professor scribbling on a whiteboard. Penn State is offering some in-person classes this semester, but Culpepper says all of his course work is done virtually.

“I came to college to go to college,” he says. “I didn’t come to college to take online school.”

Football players are famously motivated and willing to put team above self. But they’re also humans. Several heavyweight programs have been hit with outbreaks, and this week Wisconsin canceled its Big Ten game against Nebraska after six players and six coaches, including head coach Paul Chryst, tested positive.

So far, Penn State hasn’t reported any outbreaks. But the Nittany Lions’ roster lists 118 players, all of them young adults. What happens if the team’s goals — a conference championship, a spot in the College Football Playoff — get derailed?

“You like to think your teammates are all going to be, through thick and thin, be bought in,” Culpepper says. “It is easy to say that early on; we’re all gung-ho. But Week 4, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7 — I don’t know. I guess we’ll cross that bridge.”

The bar owner’s dilemma

Dante Lucchesi’s first restaurant job was folding egg rolls and working the cash register at Suzie Wong’s, his grandfather’s Chinese place in State College. He hated it, vowing to never enter the family business. Then he moved to New York, worked as a business analyst, went broke.

He moved back home and opened his own restaurant, Champs Downtown, in 2017. (He and his father own six other restaurants.) For nearly three years, Champs became famous for three things: surprise performances by the Jonas Brothers and Waka Flocka Flame, $4 “Dirty Sprites,” and an entry line that reached down the block to Calder Way. With the Penn State men’s basketball team on the verge of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, Lucchesi predicted this would be the best year yet.

Instead, the NCAA tournament was canceled and Penn State students were sent home.

“We’re just trying to survive,” he says. “Every day is just about the darkest day. It just isn’t ending.”

Twenty restaurants here have gone out of business, and hotels remain largely empty. Though in-person dining resumed in May, Pennsylvania restaurants must be kept at no more than 50 percent capacity. Bar seating is prohibited, and customers must order food and be seated at a table at all times. Bars, which used to remain open until 2 a.m., now close at 11 p.m. Lines are prohibited. Lucchesi cut shifts and reduced staff.

Lucchesi tried selling hand sanitizer for $10 a bottle. He went on a Midwestern road trip to glean ideas from other restaurateurs and started an “alliance” with fellow bar owners. He leaned into Champs’ reputation as a social hive for college students, reducing his inventory of expensive craft beers and loading up on liquor.

When the Big Ten announced football was returning, Lucchesi transformed the three-level space into a massive viewing room. In the downstairs “Fun Society,” he removed arcade games and pool tables, needing the extra space for more dining tables, separated by plexiglass dividers, and 40 bar stools. He had an audiovisual company install eight new TVs.

“We sucked the life out of this room,” he says. Usually, it fits about 350 customers. Lucchesi can now seat less than half that.

Now Penn State football, which is tied to about 20 percent of the annual revenue at Champs Downtown, is returning. And when the Nittany Lions host Ohio State on Saturday night, fans won’t be able to camp out in the parking lots or enter the stadium. He expects them to funnel downtown.

Which, on one hand, is good news. But he wakes up most days with anxiety anyway, not only because he fears having to explain to his four children that Daddy went broke again. But because his grandfather, Herbert Wong, just turned 90.

The family hadn’t seen much of Wong since March, though he was occasionally the grand marshal of car parades through the neighborhood. But in August, relatives decided to throw him a surprise birthday party. Lucchesi offered to host, on two conditions. The first was that it not be at Champs, where the clientele can be loud and the workers are on the honor system, noting their body temperature when signing in.

The second was that the family celebrate Wong’s birthday early. A few days after he turned 90, students were returning to Penn State’s campus. “Kids are still going to be kids,” he says.

These days, Lucchesi worries less about his business and more about contracting and spreading the coronavirus. With so much exposure to young people, he says, it feels almost inevitable. So now he has a new goal for 2020: just don’t kill anyone. He doesn’t plan to see his grandfather again until at least Thanksgiving, after in-person classes end at Penn State.

“I’ve kind of reconciled all of this: I’m going to do what I have to do,” he says. “I have to support my family.”

He takes a breath and continues.

“If I get it, I get it. If I die, I die,” he says. “My base concern, though, is my children and my grandfather. I just don’t want to hurt anyone.”

A mayor roots for calm

Mayor Ronald L. Filippelli likes to say that on Penn State game days, State College — population 42,000 — swells to become Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. Sometimes that’s good. Other times, not so much.

Four years ago, the last time the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State, thousands of fans celebrated by marching on Beaver Avenue. They set fires, broke windows, ripped down street signs for an estimated $31,000 in damages. When the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in February 2018, police needed riot gear and pepper spray to disperse the thousands who’d clustered downtown.

“Even in the best of times,” Filippelli says, “those are dangerous evenings.”

Despite the ordinances and restrictions, and despite the university and borough actively discouraging alumni and out-of-towners from coming to State College this weekend, students have been finding ways to congregate, socialize, inebriate themselves.

“They do find a way,” the mayor says. Lately, that’s been in basements and green spaces, which are harder to police.

Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. It’s Halloween. ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast from State College that morning. That’s a day-long drunk-fest, and if the Nittany Lions pull off the upset, Filippelli fears some will head downtown to extend the party in the middle of a state that just surpassed 200,000 coronavirus cases.

“In terms of superspreader events,” Filippelli says, “it’s hard to imagine worse.”

So with the infection rate again rising in Centre County and the hospital already on the verge of being overwhelmed, the mayor will indeed have a rooting interest in the game Saturday. He’ll be cheering, he says, for Penn State to lose.

Riding out game days

This past Saturday, around the time Michigan was kicking off against Minnesota, Nita Bharti went for a ride. It was a nice evening in State College, and after dropping her mail-in ballot through a slot at the municipal building, she continued downtown.

South Allen Street was busy but not crowded, and through bar windows, she could see the Penn State game on TV. The Nittany Lions would lose to Indiana in overtime, a blow to their most ambitious hopes for this season.

Inside one of those bars, Lucchesi was still trying to out-hustle a deadly virus and a bad economy. He’d sold access to mezzanine tables for $100 and booths for $150. But business had been surprisingly calm, he says, perhaps because some would-be patrons were choosing less regulated house parties over his pandemic-proofed bar. Less than a mile away, more than 200 people gathered to watch the game in an apartment building’s courtyard. Few wore marks or maintained distance. State College police broke up several such parties Saturday.

In the following days, alumni would call Lucchesi to inquire about table reservations for the Ohio State game, for which he was planning a slight markup. Besides, there’d be additional security to pay and a riot plan to install.

“High alert,” Lucchesi says. “We’ve never seen this before.”

After pedaling past the student union, Bharti went home. She went inside, opened her laptop and turned on “SportsCenter.” No old friends called, she says. Her dad didn’t text.

She instead spent her Saturday evening revising a couple of peer-reviewed research papers. One is about how fast a pathogen can spread across a college campus and how easily one infected person can become five to 10. What follows is an outbreak, then attempts at mitigation, of an invisible menace that can tear through a community when it’s no longer contained.

“That’s what I’m most worried about,” Bharti says. “Once you start playing, nothing is in control anymore.”

Late that night, she looked up from her laptop. “SportsCenter” was showing highlights from 18th-ranked Michigan’s 49-24 win against No. 21 Minnesota. Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins had run for two touchdowns, and Zach Charbonnet had busted a 70-yard scoring run. In that brief but familiar moment of detachment, Bharti told herself Minnesota must’ve been severely overrated, and then she got back to work.

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Newsrust: State College braces for Penn State football as the coronavirus rages
State College braces for Penn State football as the coronavirus rages
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