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Big Ten mayors 'humbly' voice Covid concerns as conference college football kicks off this weekend

In other coronavirus news: No Plexiglass dividers at Trump/Biden debate, no Santa at Macy's this Christmas.
Big Ten Football Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin
Jack Coan #17 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs with the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Big Ten Football Championship in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, 2019.Joe Robbins / Getty Images file

The Big Ten says it’s ready to play some football this weekend, but the mayors of the college towns where these teams are based have “humbly” asked the conference to address their Covid-19 concerns before kickoff.

“We know the history of football games within our cities,” the mayors wrote in an open letter this week to the Big Ten Conference, which actually has 14 universities and includes storied college football programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. “They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and consumption of alcohol. These activities within our communities have also been associated with an increased spread of Covid-19.”

So even though all Big Ten games will be played this season without fans in the stands, the mayors wrote, “we humbly request a few practical measures that the Big Ten Conference can take to ensure we have the tools we need to combat the spread of Covid-19.”

“While we all appreciate our college and university sports programs and the economic and community benefits that they provide, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over and we are expecting some potential new obstacles as a result of the upcoming football season,” Mayor Aaron Stephens of East Lansing, Michigan, the home of Michigan State University, added in a separate statement.

NBC News has reached out to the Big Ten for a response to the mayors. Their letter was delivered more than a month after the league, which had shelved the season because of concerns about the pandemic, suddenly reversed course and announced it would play after all.

President Donald Trump, who had been pressuring the Big Ten to get back out on the gridiron, claimed victory. But the league leadership said the development of rapid Covid-19 testing technology -- not the president’s pressure tactics -- was behind their decision.

"President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations," the president of a Big Ten university who asked not to be identified said. "In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative, because no one wanted this to be political."

In other coronavirus news:

  • Less that two weeks before a presidential election that is shaping up as a referendum on Trump's much-criticized handling of the pandemic, the U.S. was leading the world with 8.4 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 223,544 deaths, according to the latest tally compiled by NBC News.
  • Ahead of Trump facing off against Democratic challenger Joe Biden in their final debate Thursday, Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said they took a number of measures to keep the candidates safe, including installing Plexiglass between the podiums. “I’m not sure that the Trump campaign wanted it," he told MSNBC. It was removed after Trump and Biden tested negative.
  • Some 787,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, the lowest weekly count since March. But weekly claims have remained stubbornly high since the start of the pandemic and have far surpassed the previous record of 665,000 during the Great Recession of 2007-09.
  • Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot shut down indoor bar service again and reimposed other restrictions as the Windy City and Illinois has been buffeted by an uptick of new coronavirus infections.
  • Washington D.C. was bracing for a potential superspreader event this weekend when a controversial Christian activist is planning to hold a "worship protest" on the National Mall. The city can't stop Sean Feucht because he's holding it on federal land.
  • New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, in quarantine after being exposed to an aide with a confirmed case of coronavirus, said he's tested negative but will remain in isolation until the doctors give him the OK to leave. "I got to practice what we preach," he said.
  • The owners of a New Hampshire restaurant opted to shut down rather than abide by a state mask mandate. "What Happened to Live Free or Die," reads the sign on the door of the now closed Roselynn Homemade Ice Cream Breakfast and Lunch in the town of Epping.
  • Unless there is a miracle on 34th Street, Santa won't be showing up at Macy's flagship store in New York City this Christmas for the first time in 160 years. “To replicate the magical experience of visiting Macy’s Santaland for children and their families, we will shift to a virtual engagement this year," Susan Tercero, Macy’s vice president of branded entertainment, said in a statement. Santa will also be a no-show at the Macy's stores in Chicago and San Francisco.

The impending kickoff of the Big Ten season comes as the number of new Covid-19 cases in the United States has been accelerating at a pace not seen since July and on the heels of a two-week period that saw an 18.5 percent increase in new cases, an NBC News analysis showed.

"This past week, we've seen nearly 60,000 cases a day on average, as well as 700 deaths," Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday. He said coronavirus case numbers are "increasing in nearly 75 percent of the country."

With the U.S. climbing toward a third peak of infections, one of the states seeing a dramatic increase in new cases is Idaho, which has a positive Covid-19 test rate of 31.75 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. That is the second highest rate in the country after South Dakota.

The World Health Organization advises governments that before reopening they must maintain a testing positivity rate of 5 percent or lower for 14 days.

The situation in Idaho is so dire that local health officials are considering sending new coronavirus patients to neighboring Washington state and Oregon because they are running out of hospital beds, The Associated Press reported.

Many of the new infections are also in the Midwestern and Plains states like Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio, which is also where Big Ten teams play.

Ohio, which was once a success story, reported a record 2,425 new cases overnight and it has logged 2,000 cases of more for seven out of the last nine days, NBC News figures show.

So among other things, the Big Ten mayors asked in their letter that the conference work with local health officials to determine, based on the latest coronavirus positivity testing rates, whether it’s still safe to host a game in a given city on any given day.

They also asked the Big Ten to release its full schedule and game times so they can plan ahead. And in addition, they requested that the Big Ten avoid scheduling games at night or in the early evening, arguing that this could encourage people to hold parties and would increase the likelihood of community spread.

“The COVID-19 crisis continues to present challenges in our communities,” the mayors wrote. “While we are all excited for football games to begin, we must accept that this activity poses potential new obstacles as we attempt to slow the spread of this virus.”

The letter was signed by 11 of the 14 Big Ten city mayors following a meeting on Friday. Three mayors — of Lincoln, Nebraska (home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers); New Brunswick, New Jersey (home of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights); and Champaign, Illinois (home of the Fighting Illini) — did not sign the letter.

Lincoln’s mayor, Leirion Gaylor Baird, said a scheduling conflict prevented her from taking part in the meeting and only learned of the letter later.

“The Mayor appreciates her colleagues’ and the Big 10’s shared commitment to keeping our communities safe,” Baird said in a statement.