What you will and won't see at Neyland Stadium for Tennessee Vols football games, thanks to COVID-19
Fans can expect a bit of a different gameday experience Saturday when the University of Tennessee Vols play the Missouri Tigers at Neyland Stadium.
As COVID-19 continues to spread through East Tennessee and the United States, UT is introducing new initiatives to keep fans safe and follow Southeastern Conference guidelines.
With the changes, a few pre-game traditions have disappeared, but Tennessee athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak said a few new features will make their debut at the stadium this season.
"We recognize the significance of many longstanding UT traditions and the role they play in the gameday experience for many Tennessee fans," the university said on its gameday website, where it lists many of the changes this year. "However, public health challenges have made some of our traditions difficult to execute at this time."
Here's what to expect in and around Neyland Stadium:
In August, the city of Knoxville announced that the popular Knoxville Area Transit shuttle service to the stadium would not happen this year.
University donors in need of accessible parking must present documentation to the University Parking and Transit Services Office for special accommodation. Accessible parking is available for the general public with a pass in G10, or without a pass in G2.
Only passholders can use gameday parking at the lots surrounding Neyland Stadium. Peyton Manning Pass will be open to pass holders in lots 9, 9B and C20.
Rideshare drop-offs are allowed on Volunteer Boulevard East in front of the Claxton Education Building. Pickups after the game are allowed at "The Hill" off Circle Drive off Cumberland Avenue near Ayres Hall.
Charter and school buses can park on Todd Helton Drive behind Lindsey Nelson Stadium, but not on Phillip Fulmer Way.
Three hours before kickoff, Phillip Fulmer Way will be closed from Middle Way Drive to Tee Martin Drive. It will close to all vehicle traffic, including turns from Lake Loudon Boulevard, 30 minutes before kickoff. Gameday management will redirect permit holders for lot G10T arriving after the closure.
Additional public parking is available in non-university lots. A full list is available on the university's parking office website.
UT announced in August there would be no university sponsored tailgates this year and the university has prohibited "large gatherings with inherent social-distancing challenges" on campus.
Small gatherings are allowed if they follow health and safety guidelines:
- Parking lots will open four hours prior to kickoff.
- Fans must self-screen for symptoms before any gathering or game attendance.
- Only family or friends who plan to sit together at the stadium may gather.
- All attending must wear masks except when eating or drinking.
- No tents larger than 10 feet by 10 feet and only one tent per vehicle.
Bars near the stadium
Bars and restaurants are open in Knox County, and many are offering outdoor dining as a safer option during the pandemic. Masks are required indoors throughout the county unless diners are eating or drinking.
Bars and restaurants in Knox County are under a temporary order to close at 11 p.m.
More:Having to cancel tailgate plans? Try 'Bargates' or Vols parties delivered to your door
In September, the city of Knoxville announced restrictions on Vol Navy "sail-gating" as well. Boats can only tie on to city-owned docks two-deep and can not remain docked for more than 24 hours. Boaters must also wear masks and practice social distancing when crossing each other's boats.
More:Vol Navy and Tennessee football tailgaters face strict restrictions in Knoxville
The traditional home game Vol Walk, the pep rally parade when fans join the coach, team and the Pride of the Southland Band to march to the stadium, won't take place this fall, university officials said.
Band march to the stadium
Along with the moratorium on the Vol Walk, the university said the Pride of the Southland band's march to Neyland Stadium and its forming of the T for the traditional team entrance is also on hold until coronavirus prevention restrictions are lifted.
Run through the T
The Vols traditional run through the T is on hold this season, too. 2020 would have been the team's 55th year taking part in the tradition. But Satkowiak said fan experience staff will use the video boards to show a T opening up as the team takes the field this year.
“With this pandemic, we’ve all learned to adjust," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said, "and the norm is not the norm anymore. We won’t run through the T. We’ll run to the sideline.”
Tickets and entrances for fans
The team and the band aren't the only ones who can expect their stadium entrance to change.
Fans can only enter the stadium with a mobile phone ticket this year. Only a few gates will be open for entry, and all fans must enter through the gate assigned on their mobile ticket.
Kick-Off Call-In Show
The university said the Kick-Off Call-In Show broadcast stage won't be at the Gate 21 plaza and amphitheater this fall, but the listeners can still tune in to hear it on the Vol Radio Network.
COVID safety measures inside Neyland
The University announced in August it would limit the Neyland Stadium crowd to 25 percent capacity to allow for social distancing.
Additionally, fans are required to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth when they enter, exit or move around the stadium, and any time they're within 6 feet of other fans.
University Police Chief Troy Lane said security personnel are taking a "tiered approach" to mask enforcement.
Ushers and security at the front gates will be the first to remind people to wear their masks or pull them up properly. Once fans are inside the stadium, ushers and law enforcement officers will do the same. If someone continually refuses to wear one, they could be asked to leave the stadium, Lane said.
Line queues have been marked for appropriate distancing, and barriers and social distancing reminder signs have been placed around the stadium, along with hand sanitizer dispensers and portable hand washing measures.
Stadium staff will also be cleaning high touch-point areas frequently.
Pride of the Southland Band
While The Pride of the Southland Band won't be marching on the field, musicians will still be in place in their normal sections, Satkowiak said. But there will be a reduced number of them in the physically distanced setting. They'll be playing "Rocky Top," the alma mater and other traditional gameday tunes just like usual. The band will still play its traditional pregame set from the seats.
The SEC guidelines mean the Vols cheerleaders won't be on the field this year, and you won't see former players or celebrities hanging around the sidelines with the players and spirit squad either.
As essential as Smokey might be to fans, the beloved bluetick coonhound Tennessee mascot is not considered so essential to the Southeastern Conference.
More:SEC football: Bands, cheerleaders not allowed on field amid COVID-19 concerns
Due to the SEC's COVID-19 restrictions, only essential personnel will be allowed field access. That's players, coaches, support staff, game officials, medical and law enforcement personnel, and a limited number of photographers and media representatives.
So you won't see Smokey leading the Vols through their run onto the field or cheering from the sidelines this season — and the same goes for the costumed Smokey mascot.
Students sitting in the student section will have to follow the same requirements: Face masks must be worn when ticket holders are not eating or drinking.
Student seating will be ticketed and socially distanced, but small groups of students may be able to sit with others if they have purchased tickets together, said David Elliott, associate athletics director for event management. Students are required to sit in the seat for which they purchased a ticket and are asked not to change seats during the game, Elliott said.
"We need them not to come down and cluster up," Elliott said.
Universities employees and stadium security will be near the student section to help enforce the new guidelines.
Concessions and alcohol
Concessions and alcohol sales at the stadium will look different. A revised concessions setup will feature Grab & Go locations with concessions purchases primarily being made through the FanFood app.
Fans can use the app to order and pay for food from their seats and then pick it up at designated stands.
Concessions stands now feature plexiglass dividers between the customer and concessions workers to maintain distancing. Concessions workers will all be wearing masks and gloves and will be required to wash their hands and change gloves every 15 minutes.
Condiment stands have also been removed, but single-serve condiments are available upon request.
All food will be served pre-boxed, pre-packaged or covered with an aluminum foil sheet. Soft drinks will be served with a lid, and customers can request a straw at the concessions counter.
Additionally, the university no longer requires beer to be poured into a cup. It can be sipped straight from the bottle or can it was purchased in.
Because the water stations that were used last season will not be used this year, fans are allowed to bring one clear, sealed water bottle to the stadium.
All merchandise shops and stands will be operating at limited capacity and will not accept cash.
Fireworks, video and sound
Fireworks will continue following Tennessee touchdowns, and fan experience staff will use the video board to show a digital version of the V-O-L-S spell-out and other traditional cheers.
Satkowiak said the stadium's sound system was completely upgraded in the offseason, and fans might notice an enhanced audio experience throughout the game.
While some of the gameday traditions will not take place this season, Elliott said fans can expect to see more video components.
Coach Pruitt's press conference
Also new this year, Pruitt's post-game press conference will be shown live on the stadium videoboard.
Players looking forward to the season
Vols senior outside linebacker Deandre Johnson said he expects the season to feel different, but he is excited to put on a show for fans, even though fewer will be allowed in the stadium this year.
“I just want to thank the fans," he said in a virtual news conference. "They have been sticking with us through all this. I’m just happy to get back in front of our fans and get back to play football in Neyland."
"Those people have been working as hard as us to make sure they are staying safe. I can’t wait."
“It will be different," said Vols senior wide receiver Brandon Johnson. "My first time ever playing in Neyland without all the traditions that we are so accustomed to and the things we love."
"At the end of the day, it is still about football. That is what we will be focused on, going out and getting our second win of the season. That is our main goal," he said.
News Sentinel reporter Monica Kast contributed to this story.