LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Kroger Field has been the site of unbridled joy for Cats fans, but also plenty of heartbreak.
Since the pandemic hit, the stadium's usage and impact in the community have gone well beyond Saturdays in the fall. Less than three months after the 2019 football season ended, COVID-19 hit Kentucky and the campus emptied out.
"Our kids were literally 30 minutes away from taking the first shot at the Rifle Championship that we were hosting on campus last year when their sport was canceled," said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
Under the leadership of President Eli Capilouto, Barnhart says he and his team looked for ways to provide hope and answers in an unsure time. In April, Barnhart opened up Nutter Field House, which was transformed into a temporary field hospital in case of a huge surge in hospitalizations that, thankfully, never came.
Kroger Field has also been utilized in different ways since the pandemic hit.
"In addition to that (Nutter) we've created testing sites around the parking lots, different parking lots, around our stadium here where people can come in and community test," said Barnhart.
This summer, thousands did pack the concourses of the stadium to cast a ballot. Kroger Field served as Lexington's only in-person voting site for the primary election. While football did return in the fall and was played to smaller crowds, Barnhart is now helping to oversee an even more important use of the stadium. It's currently serving as a mass vaccination center.
"So if you go over there now, they're vaccinating our community at a pretty high level. Maxxing that out every day. There's long lines of people waiting to get in there to get their vaccinations for the COVID," said Barnhart.
Revenue is down and financial challenges will remain after the pandemic ends, but Barnhart says his number one goal throughout the year has been to keep his UK Athletics family whole.
"But in order for us to keep our family whole, we need to help keep others' families whole and I think that's what we're trying to do at Kentucky," said Barnhart.
Barnhart says the health and safety of everyone within Big Blue Nation and beyond comes first. But if we're able to reach that certain point of a new normal, maybe we'll be able to see packed stands at Kroger Field this fall.