DALLAS – Nothing could discourage Grambling State University sophomore James Latimore and his friends from attending Saturday’s State Fair Classic football matchup between GSU and Prairie View A&M University.
Not even a coronavirus pandemic.
Latimore and his friends, Ava Welsh, Diamond Williams and Paris Jackson said that, in the 18 months since the onset of government-imposed restrictions prohibiting various behaviors in social settings, they have adopted personal safety practices and use them in large group settings – including athletic events – to remain healthy and virus-free.
“We are (concerned about the pandemic),” said Diamond Williams, Latimore’s friend, who stood with him outside the State Fair’s East Entrance and waited for lines to subside so that they could get into the fair and the game.
“We got tested,” said Williams, a sophomore nursing major from Lafayette, La.
Saturday’s game drew thousands of university students, alumni and others from Louisiana, the Houston area and other parts of Texas to the one of the most popular Historically Black College matchups in the Southwestern United States.
Prairie View Panthers won the game, beating Grambling State 24-10.
Many said they had few concerns regarding the event being held during an uptick in Coronavirus infections in North Texas: That’s because they’re vaccinated, social distance themselves and wear masks in large group settings, they said.
“I keep my distance, so I’m good,” said Deandria Black, of Dallas. “It’s a lot of people, but not as many people (as in 2019), to be honest.”
Saturday’s game, which kicked off opening weekend of the State Fair of Texas, was the first time the two teams had played in the Cotton Bowl since the Classic was suspended in 2019.
At that time, city and state health officials disallowed stadium-style gatherings, athletic games, concerts, race car events and similar activities due to the dangerous spread of the highly contagious Coronavirus.
Fans said they managed their own safety inside the stadium by sitting with their personal friends and family members and masking their noses and mouths while leaving seats for bathroom and concession stand visits. Some said they did not linger in high-traffic spots.
“People are funneling in and out” of the stadium, said Black, who walked through the fair with her mother, a Prairie View alumna. The two left the game after the half-time show of band performances.
Despite employing Centers for Disease Control-recommended safety behaviors in outdoor and indoor social settings, State Fair Classic fans may also have been helped in employing their safety protocols by an expected lower turnout at the event, some vendors said.
Same-day ticket sales were down slightly from gameday sales in previous years – before the pandemic – vendors said.
“This is one of the slower (years),” said Ronald Johnson who, by 5:30 p.m., roughly an hour after the game’s kickoff, had sold about 200 gameday tickets of the 500 he had available at his booth outside the East Entrance of the State Fair.
“I thought it would have been better,” he said. “People have been locked up. I thought they would have wanted to get out.”
Inside of the stadium, some vendors said attendance was fewer at this year’s game when compared to 2019 and other previous years. In the past, ticket sales for the Grambling-Prairie View game had reached more than 32,000. No attendance figures for Saturday’s game were immediately available.
At his shop, Maurice Knight, who traveled from Baton Rouge, La. to sell Prairie View and Grambling State logo T-shirts and Greek-letter fraternity and sorority jackets, did not wear a mask while interacting with buyers at his booth.
He said he believes many game-goers were comfortable attending Saturday’s events because the predominantly college educated fans likely were vaccinated.
“This game has been a very wonderful pillar of our community,” he said. “As black people, we always want to come out and support it.”
“Most of these, 75 percent of the people here, are vaccinated,” he said. “They really want to get back to normal as much as possible.”
Helen Blake agreed.
She traveled from Tyler to the Cotton Bowl because she wanted her 14-year-old daughter, Treasure, to experience seeing HBCU band performances, members of Greek-letter fraternities and sororities interacting with each other and other fanfare surrounding Saturday’s game.
Least among her worries: The super spread of Coronavirus.
“I didn’t have many concerns,” she said, while purchasing a $55 white Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority windbreaker for herself. “I expected large crowds.”
Latimore and his friends said not attending Saturday’s game wasn’t an option – even as the students’ parents discouraged them from doing so.
“My mom is paranoid,” said Paris Jackson, a freshman from Houston, who attends Grambling State.
Sure, they are aware that infections from the Delta variant are increasing, particularly among young children, early teenagers and young adults.
“My mom is a respiratory therapist,” said Welsh, a criminal justice major from from Atlanta.
Supporting their team, they said is, well, a higher calling.
“Everybody’s going to be there,” said Williams, the sophomore nursing major from Lafayette, La. “Our whole school is here. We’re going to get tested once we get back to campus.”
Latimore’s mother, physician practicing in Shreveport, La., expressed reservations about her son’s attendance at Saturday’s game.
“She said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t agree,’” he said of his mother’s concerns.
“But at the end of the day, I’m going to do what I please.”