CEDARVILLE, Ohio — NFL football is back in Ohio, but that certainly doesn't mean the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Multiple reporters in the Cleveland area noticed several bars packed during the Browns' season opener Sunday, raising concerns about social distancing while COVID-19 remains a threat. Those concerns are likely to only grow this week, when the team plays its first home game on "Thursday Night Football."
Further complicating matters, the Browns' opponent will be the Cincinnati Bengals, and fans across the state will be tuned in to the latest edition of the "Battle of Ohio." In a normal year, this would mean the state's bars would likely be even busier than usual, but that can't fly in 2020.
In his bi-weekly press conference, Gov. Mike DeWine was asked if he worries about spectators overcrowding bars during the game. While he acknowledged protocols must be followed, he encouraged fans to continue to have fun as long as they do so safely.
"We just tell people to be careful," he said. "I know that football brings a lot of people out who want to kind of congregate together. We understand that, but the biggest spread we see is when people are congregating together."
Although there have been several citations and an Akron tavern recently had its liquor license revoked after being reprimanded multiple times, DeWine claims the "vast majority" of bars and restaurants are following the rules put in place to help curb the spread of the virus. State agents will be out performing inspections Thursday night, and while the governor says business owners bear the ultimate responsibility for wrongdoing, he urged customers to "help them out."
"Many times, people in the bar make it very difficult for people who are running the bar," he said. "Don't create a problem. Don't have such congregation that there's a great possibility of spread."
Thursday's game will also be unique in that 6,000 fans will be allowed into FirstEnergy Stadium, still much less that the capacity of just under 70,000 but an upgrade from Week 1 when no spectators were allowed into the Browns' contest in Baltimore. Both the Browns and the Bengals will be allowed to have that number of fans for a "trial period" of two games each, and DeWine is confident in the plans both teams have presented.
"We're sure that the Browns will do a very good job," he told reporters. "We're sure that the Bengals, when they host a home game, will do a good job as well."
As for the showdown itself, the Cincinnati fan DeWine did not give a prediction, but seemed to be looking forward to the quarterback matchup of Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, both former No. 1 overall picks and Heisman Trophy winners.
"The Browns-Bengals game is always a fun game," he said. "Two great quarterbacks this year and great other players, so it's going to be a fun opportunity for everybody."