Students, faculty, staff and local Chapel Hill leaders have been speaking out since UNC first closed its campus in March about the dangers of reopening in the fall. Underneath the apparent risks of opening campus to students has been the less-discussed issue of what to do with the school's athletics department.
As of now, UNC is still planning to complete its fall athletics season, which crucially includes the highly-profitable football team, slated to open its season against Syracuse in Chapel Hill on Sept. 12.
The athletics department at UNC has been in communication with local government officials regarding its plans to play in the fall. Almost all of the elected officials who spoke to The Daily Tar Heel had concerns about the return to play and the possible public health risks it could pose to the people of Chapel Hill and Orange County.
"At the end of the day, I think about safety and I'm really, really concerned about football starting in a couple of weeks," Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Penny Rich said. "I almost wish that the decision would be made to postpone the season, have a spring season instead of a fall season, and that's just because I think we'll know more in the spring after we hit the peak during the fall … My dream would be to keep everyone safe, but still have football. Just don't do it during the fall."
Quintana Stewart, the Orange County Health Director, could not be reached for comment. An Orange County spokesperson sent the following message:
"The Orange County Health Department has been in frequent communications with the UNC administration, including athletics department staff. Any decision about sporting events or fans will be made by UNC."
The lack of information on what the future will look like has made it difficult for local elected officials to take strong stances, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said — there's just no way of telling what the state of Chapel Hill will be on Sept. 12, especially with a large number of students leaving Chapel Hill in the coming days.
"We're all trying to figure this out together, and the athletics department has been very upfront with what their hope is and what their plan is," Hemminger said.
"They've been talking to our staff mostly to try and figure this out. We're unclear at this point what the actual plan will be. Given (Monday's) news, it's probably going to be changing right before whenever the first game is planned for September."
Verla Insko, the state representative for Chapel Hill in the North Carolina state legislature, said she has concerns about people driving from other parts of North Carolina or out-of-state to attend games, potentially spreading COVID-19.
"They'll be coming into the town, not just the football (stadium)," Insko said. "And they often come in for other events, and there are tailgate parties, and it is congested around the stadium."
Rich and Hemminger echoed the same fears but face an uncomfortable reality — foot traffic driven by football games on Saturdays is vital to the economic health of the town of Chapel Hill.
"Home football games bring a lot of people into our community who frequent our businesses, who park in our parking spaces, who are part of the life and fabric of football game weekend," Hemminger said. "Hotels, all those things. It would have a significant impact (if the season was canceled)."
Rich and Insko spoke to the DTH before the announcement that UNC would be "de-densifying" campus by asking students to move out of residence halls. But UNC announced that its athletes would be allowed to keep living on campus and practicing in facilities.
When sent a list of questions, UNC athletics did not confirm whether or not it planned to have fans in attendance for the upcoming season
"In coordination with the University, we continue to study multiple scenarios to host fans at athletics events," a UNC Athletics spokesperson said in a statement. "Our University and department have had multiple discussions with the Orange County Health Department, and the University has reached out to officials from the state. All of those discussions have been informative, and we will continue to gather input. The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and community will be our priority as plans are finalized. We certainly will share those plans once they are in place."
Insko, Rich and Hemminger all said they would not feel comfortable attending an event hosted on Sept. 12 as is currently planned.
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