Gov. Mike DeWine awoke like a lot of other Ohio State football fans Wednesday morning. He needed to decide whether to opt in for his 2020 season tickets.
The previous day, the school informed season-ticket holders of plans to limit crowds at football games this fall to about 20,000 spectators.
A mass email asked them to opt in or out by Monday as administrators sort out which fans will be admitted with the reduced capacity. Almost 45,000 non-student season tickets had been sold this spring, including a handful to DeWine and his family.
"We all love Ohio State football," DeWine said. "It's always a great experience to go to a game, but this year is going to be different one way or another."
While growing up in Yellow Springs almost seven decades ago, he first visited Ohio Stadium with his father, Richard.
The Buckeyes were then an ascending powerhouse under coaching legend Woody Hayes, winning a national championship in 1954 when DeWine was 7 years old. He was captivated by halfback Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, who led Ohio State to the title and collected the Heisman Trophy the following year as college football’s most outstanding player.
"That was the first team I remember," DeWine said.
Last season, he attended most of the home games and went to the Fiesta Bowl, where the Buckeyes were eliminated from the College Football Playoff by Clemson.
"Not what we wanted to see," he said.
It was an unwelcome result for everyone in his traveling party, except for his son, Brian, who graduated from Clemson.
But as Ohio’s governor, DeWine is one of the top decision-makers for what football might look like at the Horseshoe this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mass gatherings at college or professional sporting events remain prohibited under the state’s latest public health order, according to a spokesman from the governor’s office.
If fans are to be permitted, virus restrictions will need to be lifted.
In a phone interview with The Dispatch, DeWine said he had not been involved in Ohio State’s plans for 20 percent stadium capacity, but he had spoken with athletic director Gene Smith about them early Wednesday.
"I have confidence that, whatever the number we end up with as far as fans, Ohio State knows how to deal with large numbers of people," DeWine said. "And the stadium is big and you can spread people out. I don't know whether that's 10 percent or 20 percent. When they're inside, I have every confidence that Ohio State can run a first-class operation that protects fans.
"But the real challenge is bringing 10,000 or 20,000 people into Columbus, many of them from long distances away, substantial distances away."
DeWine told reporters at his news conference Tuesday that it was "too early" to determine if the proposal from Ohio State was safe, an issue that is to be sorted out in the weeks ahead.
While an avid sports fan, DeWine was among the first governors in March to push for limited attendance at games.
At the time, he called for NCAA men’s basketball tournament play-in games in Dayton to be played without spectators, as well as other indoor sporting events, before the tournament was ultimately canceled.
DeWine said his largest public health concern with fan attendance at Buckeyes football games rests with the pregame and postgame activities that could fuel the spread of COVID-19 throughout central Ohio, a region that has in recent days caught the attention of White House officials concerned it could become one of the viral hot spots in the U.S.
"It’s not what they do for the three hours they’re inside the stadium," DeWine said. "What are they doing the night before? What are they doing before game time?"
DeWine sounded encouraged by the steps Ohio State had taken to prohibit tailgating in the parking lots and other areas surrounding the stadium. Skull Session, the pregame pep rally at St. John Arena, is also to be canceled.
Lane Avenue overflows with scarlet-and-gray-clad fans that descend on fall Saturdays.
"You drive around campus on gameday," he said. "There's more people outside doing partying than there is inside."
He reasoned people could still congregate in other parts of the city. As coronavirus cases in Ohio continue to climb by more than 1,000 each day, DeWine said a significant contributing factor is informal gatherings between people.
"People bring together their friends, neighbors, and they don’t wear masks," DeWine said. "They don’t social distance, they’re not careful. That’s where we’re seeing the big spread. So it’s the things, as far as fans, that would go on outside Ohio State property that would worry anybody who’s looking at it from a health point of view."
The next month is likely to shape DeWine’s views on fan attendance at fall football games, among other facets of people’s daily lives.
DeWine framed the next three to four weeks as a critical juncture for assessing the issue, believing COVID-19 cases would rise or fall due to the prevalence of mask wearing and other social behaviors.
"It will change the environment in which decisions are being made in regards to sports," he said.
The hazy outlook leaves him waiting like everyone else in Buckeye Nation.