JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – All eyes will be on Jacksonville Saturday as it hosts Ultimate Fighting Championship 261, the city’s first live sports event with a sellout crowd since the pandemic began.
Up to 15,000 fans will pile into VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena for the highly anticipated UFC fight card headlined by a bout that pits Jorge Masvidal against Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title.
But even as professional sports look to bring fans back into the stands, public health experts are voicing concerns about taking a victory lap before Florida is completely out of the woods.
“The important thing, as we get more and more vaccines going into the arms of people, (is) that we will be able to control this virus and get ourselves back to some form of normality,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical advisor, told News4Jax this week. “But to prematurely declare victory by pulling back on the public health measures, I believe, is ill-advised.”
There will be safety protocols in place at the UFC event, according to the promoter’s website. Besides signing a waiver, ticket holders will be required to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire in advance of the event. This measure is intended to streamline fans’ entry into the arena.
Dr. Fauci cautioned that reopening the state without keeping precautions in place represents a “risky proposition,” particularly as Florida ranks third in the nation for overall COVID-19 infections. The state also has the most documented cases of the U.K. variant, which is more contagious than other strains.
As a nation, Fauci said, the U.S. is averaging 60,000 to 70,000 new infections a week, a tally he called unacceptable because it leaves the country in jeopardy of seeing another surge in cases.
“That’s why we encourage people to hang in there a bit longer with the kinds of things we know can contain the virus: the universal wearing of masks, the physical distancing, avoiding congregate settings,” he said. “Not permanently by any means but just until the vaccines can take over.”
Chad Neilsen, an infectious disease expert for UF Health Jacksonville, echoed those concerns. Neilsen said gathering indoors, even with public health protocols in place, carries an element of risk.
“Any large gathering indoors or outdoors that is crowded, whether you’re vaccinated or not, does represent an increased risk for you that I think you need to be really careful about,” Neilsen said. “And if you do, make sure that you are still wearing a mask and try to stay away from close proximity of other people because you don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not, either.”
The UFC event comes roughly a month after Mayor Lenny Curry allowed Jacksonville’s mask mandate to expire. The measure, which required anyone over the age of 6 to wear a mask in public indoor settings, is now optional, except in cases where businesses require customers and employees to wear masks.
Curry and Gov. Ron DeSantis joined UFC President Dana White at the arena Thursday for a news conference about the upcoming fight card. The mayor credited the governor and White with helping to revive sports at a time when the pandemic upended everything.
DeSantis said that he told the UFC that it was welcome back any time, but he wanted the promotion to return to the state when fans were able to attend. White told News4Jax a year ago that the UFC would be back for a blockbuster card with fans as soon as it could.
“I told Dana, I said listen, when you guys are ready to come, you know, have the crowd, Florida needs to be the first place to do UFC with all the fans,” DeSantis said.
“And to his credit, he said, ‘We will be there in Florida. And so we were waiting to figure out, you know, when was going to make sense and then they said ‘we want to do it in April.’ And we’re like, you’re welcome. We’re an open state. We want people to be able to come and make decisions for themselves about what they want to attend and not want to attend.”
DeSantis thanked Curry for opening the doors to Jacksonville last year at a time when nowhere else in the country was doing that.
“It was May of last year when the entire sports world was sleeping. And Dana White had the vision and courage to say, ‘We can put an event on, without fans, but we can do this, even though we’re going to be criticized. Can we do it in your city?’ And we did UFC 249 here a year ago. And Dana promised, ‘I’m coming back and I’m going to bring you a great night of fights. And he has delivered,” Curry said.
Andrew Steimmetz, a fan who plans to attend UFC 261, was unfazed by those concerns when he spoke with News4Jax on Thursday. He said he’s not at all nervous about going to Saturday’s event.
“I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal, you know,” he said. “A lot people are getting vaccinated and if you’re a sickly person, you should stay home, but if you are not wand want to attend these events, you should be able to.”
This marks the second event UFC has held in Jacksonville during the pandemic. Last year, the promotion held three nights of fights in town. The only difference? Last time around, there were no fans.
“Quite frankly, this event is good for Florida. We’re happy y’all are gonna have a good time. But it’s going to be great for people that are watching on TV to see the fans back. To see all this stuff happening,” DeSantis said. “So, I just want to give you a warm Florida welcome. We thank you for being here. I’m excited to be here, and I know the mayor is excited to be here. So, welcome to Florida. You guys aren’t the only one looking to come to this oasis of freedom.”