What’s it like to attend a Mercer basketball game during a pandemic?

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Image: Mandi DeLong

Mandi DeLong and Kyaria Madlock attend the men’s basketball game against VMI on Jan. 23.

A dance team member bounces in the stands as she waves her metallic pom-pom in the air. The scoreboard switches from showing members of the audience to highlighting the score in orange lights. Players mill back out on to the court as the music playing over the speaker slowly drifts off. Fans settle in their seats, shifting attention towards the court as chants of “Go, MU!” start up in the stands.

It’s the first Mercer University basketball game as a doubleheader, with the men and women basketball teams having games back-to-back, and it’s not an unusual kind of game.

Due to the pandemic, however, games like this now look a bit different.

Last semester, COVID-19 led to an adjusted sports schedule here at Mercer, including football being pushed back until spring. Mercer’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have still been able to play out their seasons, which started shortly after the official last day of classes in the fall semester.

The men’s and women’s basketball teams played against the Virginia Military Institute and Furman University respectively Jan. 23.

There were only a few people in the box office at the University Center handing out tickets. One sat at the front of the booth to hand out tickets to people outside while another sat to the left to pass out tickets to people already inside the UC.

When fans went into the arena, they had their tickets scanned by student workers wearing an orange polo and mask.

There is no temperature check to enter the arena, but masks are required unless you’re eating or drinking something.

In November, Mercer announced that they would have fans socially distance from one another during games. Last year, the men’s basketball games had a lot of patrons that filled up the arena. This year, the stands are only half-full.

Small groups sit together, separated from other patrons by a few empty seats. Most people are wearing a mask, but a handful continues to pull them down to talk to their friends or snack on concessions.

When fans go to take their seats, they’re asked to sit in their assigned seat because of the doubleheader. After the men’s game ends, they need to spray down the used seats in the arena in time for the women’s game against Furman. Beyond that, the game proceeds as normal, albeit with many more masks than usual in sight.

The dance team, cheerleaders, color guard and band are all in the stands, wearing their group’s matching masks. When a player takes a free throw, they all remain in the stands.

Instead of two cheerleaders doing a backflip to celebrate the basket, they cheer with the rest of the groups in the stands. During halftime, the dance team takes the court to perform, but the cheerleaders aren’t able to perform on the sidelines at either game.

This particular game ended with an 83-80 win for Mercer, but no one goes down to the court to greet any of the players. The celebration is muted as fans begin leaving the arena, and the band plays the last song.

The dance team clusters close together, facing the court for their last dance. When the song ends and most of the fans are out of the arena, student workers, players and band members are ushered out to the University Center. Fans can stay here for the next hour between games during cleaning.

Fans interested in attending both games aren’t allowed to remain in their seats for the wait between games like they used to be able to. Other members of staff are cleaning the arena in preparation for the next game, so students take advantage of their break to hang out with friends or buy food.

Eventually, they’re allowed to head back inside the arena to prepare for the women’s game at 6 p.m. Then they get to do it all over again.

The game experience is less crowded and more conscious of the presence of other patrons than before COVID-19. It can be a bit awkward, especially with multiple games on one day. However, it retains most of the typical game experience while making it safer for fans, players and staff to be there.