Ann Arbor officials, businesses prepare for Michigan-Michigan State game day like no other

Miriam Marini, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read
M Den near U-M central campus in Ann Arbor has a sign on display outside "Nothing can take our Wolverine pride, even though we have to cheer inside", Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
M Den near U-M central campus in Ann Arbor has a sign on display outside "Nothing can take our Wolverine pride, even though we have to cheer inside", Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

Ann Arbor officials and residents are waiting with bated breath in anticipation of what turnout for the most unusual football game in University of Michigan history will look like Saturday.

Amid an emergency stay-home order for University of Michigan students, prompted by rising case numbers in Washtenaw County that have been traced back to gatherings around campus, the game will miss one key feature: Thousands of fans in the stands.

A typical game, especially when the team is going head-to-head with rival Michigan State, would garner more than 100,000 spectators. This year’s face-off will be attended by a small fraction as fans are encouraged to #HailFromHome and multiple restrictions have been imposed to deter fans from gathering in traditional fashion.

More: Washtenaw County issues 2-week stay home order for U-M students

Officials with the Ann Arbor Police Department and campus police are unsure what Saturday has in store, but they intend to enforce the order, in accordance to recommendations from the health department.

“I don't know how much excitement there's going to be, it's going to look way different than anything we've ever seen before,” said Lieutenant Mike Scherba, a spokesperson for the city police department. “We’re used to 100,000-plus people coming to our town on game day and we just don't know at this point how many additional people will come in for outside the stadium or off-stadium gatherings.”

The Diag on U-M central campus in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
The Diag on U-M central campus in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

As public access to games is prohibited — with exceptions including a limited number of family members and guests — and tailgates banned around and near the stadium, there's little reason for fans to come to campus. Instead, fans were explicitly told to stay home and watch the game from the comfort of their couches.

Additional personnel will be deployed to ensure spectators follow university restrictions, Scherba said, including no tailgating on campus or in stadium parking lots, as lots will be closed and under police eye.

“We hope that people will respect the governor's order and keep their groups to a minimum,” Scherba said.

In anticipation of game day celebrations, outdoor social gatherings have been restricted to 10 people in East Lansing neighborhoods surrounding Michigan State University. The order, which previously limited outdoor gatherings to 25 people, encompasses the northern edge of MSU's campus to Burcham Drive bounded by Harrison Road to the west and Hagadorn Road to the east, and includes properties adjacent to those streets.

More: Outdoor gatherings in parts of East Lansing now restricted to 10 people ahead of Halloween, U of M game

With clear guidelines for community members, Scherba expects Saturday to be smooth sailing.

“As long as those things are done, and the folks use all the precautions that they're doing already, I think we'll hopefully have a good afternoon for football, with a Michigan win,” he said.

On a typical football Saturday, the Ann Arbor campus population is nearly doubled as it’s overtaken by swaths of fans hailing from faraway places. Restaurants and bars would be overflowing with hungry diehards, fueling up before their next hurrah.

Speaking from an empty restaurant during what would have been a bustling lunch hour Wednesday, Roger Hewitt contemplated whether game day would prove to be profitable. That's something he’s never had to even doubt in the 28 years he has owned the Red Hawk Bar and Grill on State Street, as it’s usually one of his biggest business days of the year.

Roger Hewitt, owner of Red Hawk Bar and Grill poses for a photo inside of the restaurant in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
Roger Hewitt, owner of Red Hawk Bar and Grill poses for a photo inside of the restaurant in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

“It’s quite possible nobody will come in. It’s quite possible a lot of people will come in,” Hewitt, of Ann Arbor, said. “It’s just impossible to know right now.”

Under a new order by the state health department issued Thursday, restaurants have been imposed with even stricter guidelines as case rates, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise. New requirements include limiting the number of patrons dining together and collecting customers' contact information for contact tracing efforts.

Even if dozens do come to the restaurant, Hewitt is hesitant whether they’ll be equipped to handle a crowd as his staff has been slashed.

“We are all dealing with stress,” Hewitt said. “We could call it more than just sad; we could call it disastrous.”

More: Religious school, parents argue mask mandates deny educational, spiritual opportunities

Missing from the University of Michigan's Diag Friday afternoon were students protecting the Block M, a tradition dating back to 1999 in which fraternity brothers camp out around the fixture in shifts the week preceding the Michigan State game — a potential indicator for morale leading up to this year's game.

For senior Amanda Kaplan, Saturday’s game has been on her radar for quite some time, to say the least.

From left, U-M seniors Lena Stein, art major, Alyssa Dern, engineering major, Alana Woloshin, information science major and Amanda Kaplan, public policy major pose for a photo in the front porch of their house in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
From left, U-M seniors Lena Stein, art major, Alyssa Dern, engineering major, Alana Woloshin, information science major and Amanda Kaplan, public policy major pose for a photo in the front porch of their house in Ann Arbor, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

“I would say, home game, versus MSU, senior year is like definitely a day that you look forward to,” said Kaplan, who serves as president of the university’s Central Student Government. “It's pretty unfortunate that these are the circumstances that we have to experience it in.”

Kaplan is one of the lucky students who live off campus and isn't subjected to stricter directives like those residing in university dorms. As such, she’ll be able to recreate game day traditions as best as she can.

“We're all planning to get up early, dress up, take pictures on our porch and simulate the game day as much as we can, and then go inside and watch it together, and we won’t have anyone additional come to our house,” Kaplan said. “It's just a way to simulate the excitement, because it is our final year so we want to dress up and have pictures and things like that. You'll be seeing these small gatherings of people who live together, just trying to appreciate the game in their own home and simulate as best as they can what that normal experience would have been like.”

While students may have to forgo pregaming at 9 a.m. parking lot tailgates, the university has suggested multiple coronavirus-friendly alternatives such as virtual watch parties and game day bingo sheets.

“We're just going to try to make the most of it,” said Kaplan, a public policy student. “You know, rather sulk at home and not do anything, we’re going to have fun with it using the creative ways that we can.”

Contact Miriam Marini: mmarini@gannett.com

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan-MSU football game day won't be same with stay-home order