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In Iowa, College Football Returns As State COVID-19 Cases Soar


Across the country, life at colleges and universities is looking very different this fall. Many classes are online. Students have to wear masks on campus. And there's a crackdown on parties. But at Iowa State University, there's one thing that feels familiar - college football. Today, the ISU Cyclones played the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns in the season opener, this at a time when the rate of new coronavirus cases in Iowa is among the highest in the nation. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a college road trip to check out what's happening on campuses. And she is with us now from Ames, Iowa.

Elissa, welcome. Good to hear from you.


MARTIN: So football in a college town. What's that like in a pandemic?

NADWORNY: Well, we heard the game today the way a lot of folks did, away from the stadium, on the radio on KCYZ 105.1.


UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: And here goes Eddie Ogamba approaching the ball, and this season is finally underway. Cyclone fans, we wish you could be with us today. So many of you that have rarely, if ever, missed a game, I know you're hurting not being able to be with us here today.

NADWORNY: It was fall college football, but it wasn't a normal game. There were no fans. The stands were empty except for the marching band. The parking lots, which are usually filled with RVs and tailgaters, were empty.

MARTIN: So no tailgating. Where are the fans?

NADWORNY: Well, we saw students out in front lawns and backyards grilling, playing beer pong. And you better believe there was a lot of alcohol. Students were watching the game on TVs rigged up outside under tents. We talked to Justin Angler (ph), who was watching the game outside with a bunch of his friends.

JUSTIN ANGLER: Football means everything. We live in Iowa. What else is there to do except for football, you know?

NADWORNY: A few of his friends, all seniors here, weighed in.

JESSE BENBROOK: Yeah. Like, normally, there's - I mean, you can't park anywhere. There's people walking on the street.

HARRY POE: Definitely a lot more tame than I thought it would be for, like, tailgate, first tailgate of the year. But I guess people are responsible these days.

ZOE LYNCH: There's been a lot of police officers driving around and kind of breaking up stuff that was not abiding by the rules.

NADWORNY: Those were ISU students Jesse Benbrook, Harry Poe and Zoe Lynch. And the rules here are that students can't have gatherings of more than 10 people, even outside. We did see some larger parties here happening throughout Ames. We also watched the police breaking up a big tailgating party. In the process, one of the officers asked a student the score of the game. So at least the cat and mouse are rooting for the same team.

MARTIN: OK, sounds fun. But on a more serious note, as we said, coronavirus rates in Iowa right now are high, the third highest in the country per capita. Did you get a sense that people know that or a sense of that on campus with all the people you talked to?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So cases here at Iowa State are troubling. Of the students that have been tested, about 20% are positive. The university isn't doing any mandatory mass testing here, so it's hard to know how widespread the virus is among the 32,000 students here. But Iowa State isn't alone. Just a few hours away, the University of Iowa is also struggling with high numbers of students infected. College campuses are fueling outbreaks across the country. Colleges - they're not separate from the towns and counties where they sit. So the big fear is that these high numbers of cases on campus will spill into nearby communities.

MARTIN: OK, Elissa. I'm sorry. I can't resist. Who won the game?

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Well, it was a loss for the home team. The Ragin' Cajuns beat the Cyclones 31-14.

MARTIN: Oh, harsh.


MARTIN: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny just outside Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. Elissa, thank you.

NADWORNY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.