Two hours before the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers kicked off their first game of the season at home against the Illinois Fighting Illini, State Street seemed emptier than it’s been on a gameday since Wisconsin’s run of perennial losses in the 1980s.
Groups of four or five students sporting Cardinal red walked up and down State Street — some stopping to check into bars like Monday’s or Chasers they had reserved spots in — but most just seemed to be making their ways to television screens before kickoff.
“[Madison] is kind of a bummer right now,” UW-Madison sophomore Jack Weber said. “Last year, you would walk into the city on a Friday and feel the energy for a Saturday game. Now, there’s no electricity in the air at all.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended “normal” life completely in 2020, with even college football being pulled into its orbit.
Gamedays in Madison almost didn’t take place at all this year. The conference announced the decision to postpone all games indefinitely due to the pandemic, citing worries for the athletes’ long-term health. Those plans changed about a month ago, when the Big Ten backtracked and announced that football would be returning for the 2020 season.
But, while football was returning to Madison, so was COVID-19.
The state of Wisconsin has seen dramatic spikes in its number of coronavirus cases, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, since the beginning of September. Gov. Tony Evers has made efforts to flatten the curve in the state with a mask mandate and indoor capacity limits; however, lawsuits brought by state Republicans have seriously hindered his ability to act.
The spike in cases forced UW-Madison to limit attendance to Friday’s game even further, barring not only UW students and faculty, but even the families of players from watching the game in-person. Only essential personnel were admitted into Camp Randall Stadium, including teams, health professionals and a limited number of journalists.
While family members were told they couldn’t enter Camp Randall, restrictions for gatherings outside the stadium continued to pile up as well.
Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) recently issued an emergency order that requires social distancing and mask-wearing, as well as limits indoor gatherings to 10 people or fewer and outdoor gatherings to 25 or fewer. The Madison Police Department also issued a statement warning anyone caught in violation of the emergency order could face a $376 fine, while businesses that do not comply could face fines up to $1,000 per-violation.
All that added up to a less-than electric gameday atmosphere.
“[Friday] felt like it could have been any other school day,” Weber said. “There was nothing to do.”
Gameday’s “New Normal”
Traditional gamedays used to be an all-day, all-night party in Madison, Wis. — tailgates blared all over the city and bars were packed tight with Badger fans.
“Even if you don’t like football, you like gameday,” UW-Madison sophomore John Wolf said. “You feel connected to the other 80,000 people in the stadium with you, it’s an awesome feeling.”
However, that scene looks a lot different during a pandemic.
Every downtown bar has been affected by public health orders trying to limit the spread of COVID-19. Plaza Tavern, a local bar loved by UW-Madison students and alumni alike, recently raised over $70,000 on GoFundMe to fend off an impending closure. Some bars appeared to be shuttered completely just hours before kickoff, perhaps in order to avoid being cited for going against public health orders.
According to News 3 reporter Adam Duxter, Sconnie Bar sold 40 seat reservations prior to the game Friday evening. Each table sold for $80 and a seat at the bar was worth $25.
“Normally on gameday mornings I get up and blast music throughout my apartment to wake my roommates up,” UW-Madison senior Lilly Zoller said. “There’s been no music played today.”
Many students decided to watch the game from their homes because of the heavy restrictions on public places, opting instead for the comfort that comes with the safety of their own apartments and houses.
“I’ll just watch the game with my roommates and our two closest friends, we won't go out at all,” Zoller said. “I don’t trust a lot of people on campus.”
Wisconsin ended up crushing Illinois 45-7 in the game Friday night, as redshirt freshman phenom quarterback Graham Mertz set the Badger record for single game completion percentage and single game passing touchdowns in his first ever start.
However, Mertz tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday after the win, underscoring the situation in Wisconsin. He could face up to 21 days away from the team if his diagnosis is confirmed by a second positive test.