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Lightning Celebrations Trigger Rise in UT Cases

By Juliana Walter

The University of Tampa’s COVID-19 numbers rose by 76 cases after hundreds of students and locals gathered without masks in Henry B. Plant Park just a week before.

For the first time since the novel COVID-19 virus, huge crowds of people without masks flooded downtown Tampa. To celebrate the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent Stanley Cup victory, players and staff paraded up the Hillsborough River in boats. The boat parade began at Marjorie Park Marina and ended at the Cass Street bridge. Due to Florida Gov. Ron De Santis, lifting all masks and gathering restrictions, the thousands of unmasked observers in downtown were completely legal.

Stephanie Russell Krebs, vice president of Student Affairs and dean of students at UT, confirmed that despite the governor’s reopening order, nothing in the Spartan Shield, UT’s health safety initiative, had been modified. But the university expected the rise in case numbers due to the transition back to more normal life following De Santis’ orders.

“We are anticipating an uptick in cases this week and attribute this uptick to general complacency regarding personal health and safety, especially off campus – at bars, clubs and restaurants, house parties and city-wide events,” said Krebs.

As outlined in UT’s health and safety plan, students and faculty are expected to maintain social-distancing and wear a mask both on and off campus. Before the boat parade, the university’s public information office, along with UT’s hockey team, posted an Instagram video encouraging students if they chose to attend the celebration to wear masks and practice physical distance. But the large crowds gathered closely together with a rare sight of a mask and did not follow these suggestions.

Hundreds of UT students were a part of the parade by watching from the university’s Henry B. Plant Park, which is adjacent to the river. Matthew Twarog, sophomore finance major, was one of these students who celebrated at the parade.

“It felt like normal life again,” said Twarog. “Even though we were breathing the same air, it was outside and that was safe enough for me.”

Claudia Aguado Loi, associate professor of health sciences and human performance, studies epidemiology, or the study of distribution and control of diseases. Loi still urges UT to remain cautious.

“We can be creative to celebrate outdoors while keeping our distance from others but not let our guard down. UT must continue to remind our students, faculty, and staff of the spartan shield, what to do if symptomatic, and if in contact with a suspicious or positive person,” said Loi. “The stakes continue to be high.” 

The parade took place just one day before UT announced their changes to the Spring 2021 semester due to COVID-19 concerns. The changes involve no longer having a set spring break to encourage students to not travel back and forth during the semester and classes will begin on Jan. 19, a week earlier than usual. 

“Keep your distance above all and wear a mask if with other people, especially indoors or in crowds,” said Loi. “Cases that may emerge can be from several activities.  Only through contact tracing and robust testing will we know for sure.”

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