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By Amy Tennery
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Super Bowl celebrations kicked off in Tampa, Florida, this week amid unprecedented circumstances, as locals prepared to cheer on their hometown Buccaneers against the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs all during a pandemic that once threatened to derail the NFL season.
Volunteers dressed in Buccaneers' red cheered and clapped for travelers as they arrived at the Tampa Bay International Airport on Tuesday night.
Their mandatory masks were the only thing muffling their enthusiasm while a voiceover from Mayor Jane Castor reminded those en route to the baggage claim to cover up their faces.
"We know how to handle difficult situations and make the best of it here in Tampa Bay and we intend to put on the best Super Bowl ever, even if it's under some unusual, in difficult circumstances," Castor told Reuters.
Those circumstances involve hosting the biggest sporting spectacle in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 440,000 lives across the country, as federal, state and local officials scramble to distribute vaccines.
Tampa recently instituted mask-wearing requirements in outdoor areas where social distancing isn't possible.
This is amid stark warnings from public health experts that precautions must be taken seriously to avoid the festivities turning into a "super spreader" event, with thousands expected to fly and drive into the region.
Helicopters soared across pristine blue skies above the Tampa Bay, where a pirate ship waving the flag of every National Football League (NFL) team bobbed in the water.
Excited residents mingled among volunteers and Super Bowl security along the Tampa Riverwalk, where the annual "Super Bowl Experience", an interactive theme park, will take place outdoors.
"They've done a fantastic job, especially under the circumstances," said Riggi Clink, a retiree who has lived in Tampa for 30 years, but is nonetheless apprehensive over the event. "There's so many people who do not respect wearing the mask. I can't imagine."
University of Tampa juniors Kaylee Nallan and Natalie Jumaoas were among the dozens of residents basking in the Super Bowl glow, and the 61-degree Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) weather, on Wednesday, posing for pictures in front of a Super Bowl LV sign while wearing matching gray Buccaneers sweatshirts.
"It's amazing, especially after everything that's happened this year and last year," said Nallan, who said they would not be among the limited 22,000 general admission attendees at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
"Since the Lightning won the Stanley Cup and the Rays went to the World Series, it's just really cool to see that Tampa is getting a lot of recognition now," said Jumaoas.
To keep that party going, the Buccaneers will have to take down the Chiefs on Sunday, as Tampa bids to become not only the first city to host its own team at the Super Bowl - but to watch them win, too.
"We want to provide all of the fans with the best experience ever, but to do it safely," said Castor. "The only people that we expect to leave the Tampa Bay area disappointed are the Kansas City fans."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Toby Davis)