116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Tailgating at the University of Iowa has for generations served as both a treasured and ritualistic selling point of the Hawkeye experience, if not sometimes a law enforcement headache and magnet for mayhem.
Last year, with COVID-19 raging and no vaccine available, the UI like other campuses across the nation lost out on the tailgating revelry and associated revenue — along with the pre- and post-game ruckus — when football schedules were truncated and fans barred from attending games.
The last Hawkeye game with fans allowed at Kinnick Stadium was Nov. 23, 2019 — a hiatus finally broken with Saturday’s home game against the Indiana Hoosiers.
Tailgating staples were back, and excited fans were setting up their tents, grilling, playing bags or tossing a football around outside Kinnick. Not even the misty morning could dampen the excitement fans felt.
“We’re excited to be back,” said Clay Waterbury of DeWitt. “We’ve had the same crew for five years. It’s like a family here.” He said his family has had season tickets since 1983, making him a third-generation season ticket holder.
The long wait for Waterbury and others like him ended with an added twist: alcohol sold throughout Kinnick Stadium. Acknowledging the potential perils of beer and wine sales, the UI limited the hours its parking lots are open for tailgating this year to no sooner than six hours before kickoff and no earlier than 6 a.m. For Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game, that meant tailgating in the UI-controlled lots could start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Waterbury and his group would usually get to the lots around 7 a.m. but had push that back this time.
UI Athletics earlier this year announced expanded alcohol sales not only in Kinnick but in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena and its other athletics venues and fields after losing tens of millions from pandemic shut downs and expenses. Although the change will boost revenue, UI Athletics has committed to giving 30 percent of its net alcohol sales income to “research-based initiatives developed and supported by the UI Alcohol Harm Reduction Committee, formed in 2009 to decrease high-risk drinking and the related harmful consequences.”
Season ticket holders Melissa and Jeff Nederhoff drove in from Des Moines for Saturday’s game. The two have been to all Big Ten stadiums and at one point had a 85-game streak of seeing the Hawkeyes play at home and away.
They were excited for the game and tailgating, but another bonus was seeing friends they hadn’t seen in a long time.
Spending time with friends was also a bonus for Jesse Godwin, who was celebrating his 40th birthday a few days early. Godwin, who lives in the Des Moines area, began coming to Hawkeye games when he was 11 years old and has been hooked ever since.
“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Godwin said.
The city of Iowa City last year did not allow vendors to set up along Melrose Avenue due to the pandemic. But just like Hawkeye football, Melrose vendors were back Saturday.
Dana Vernon of Iowa City began setting up to sell Hawkeye T-shirts, sweatshirts, masks and other apparel at 6:45 a.m. Hollywood Graphics, a family-run business by Vernon, her husband, Mark, and daughter, Mayson, has been operating for 28 years.
“We’re really excited and glad to be back,” she said.
Businesses ‘cautiously optimistic’
Downtown Iowa City businesses were “cautiously optimistic” about the weekend and what it might mean for financial recovery.
Not having football fans for almost two years has had a “dramatic” financial impact, Think Iowa City President Josh Schamberger said. He pointed out the economic impact in Johnson County is more than $120 million a season, breaking down to about $20 million a game.
“That's rather significant,” Schamberger said. “It's hotel rooms. It’s restaurants. It's attractions. It's a significant amount of visitor expenditures. It extends beyond Johnson County, too.”
Ahead of the weekend game, Schamberger said nearby hotels were at 95 percent occupancy — a sharp increase from last year. Hotel occupancy was at about just 15 percent the same time last year, he said.
Brian Flynn, owner of Joe’s Place, 30hop and Tin Roost, said his businesses prepared just as they would for any busy weekend, with COVID-19 safety measures in place like employees wearing masks. Flynn said a new air filtration system was put into Joe’s Place last year.
"It became the norm last year just to do everything the best we possibly could as far as safety protocols, sanitizing and cleaning,” Flynn said. “We've upped the standard across the board everywhere.”
Leah Cohen, owner of the Bo-James restaurant and bar, said people would come in last fall to watch the games. But it wasn’t the same as the excitement surrounding the stadium being open to fans.
“I think with our downtown and campus town mingled together here it certainly adds a different aroma to what goes on,” Cohen said. “People on the streets, the traffic and restaurants busy — it's just a great place to be.”
The Iowa City Downtown District prepared additional outdoor seating for visitors to allow them to spread out more, which can be expected for future games, too, said Nancy Bird, the downtown district’s executive director. The downtown district is encouraging people to support local businesses while also taking necessary COVID-19 precautions.
"Having this level of business back in town is important for recovery so that people can help make up for and pay down any debts that they incurred over the past year and a half,” Bird said. "Trying to accommodate that business, in as safe a way as possible, is important to everybody.”
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