The UNC athletic department's announcement last week that about 3,500 fans would be allowed to enter Kenan Memorial Stadium on Oct. 10 for the football team’s home game against Virginia Tech has prompted questions about how to safely implement fan attendance.
This followed North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision that any outdoor venue that seats over 10,000 people could reopen at 7 percent capacity, effective Oct. 2 — the same day Phase 2.5 of the state’s COVID-19 protocols are set to expire.
By admitting fans, the athletic department will hope to offset the predicted financial difficulties brought on by the continuing pandemic. In a press release from August, Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham said the department was facing a potential $15 million loss in ticket revenues and a $30-52 million loss overall. However, there are still questions about how safe a reopening really is.
John Brunner, an associate athletic director for event management at UNC, said policies such as masks, social distancing, sanitizing stations, staggered entrances and cashless concessions will be implemented to prioritize safety above everything. He also said people found to be in continued violation of COVID-19 protocols can be removed from the stadium.
“People are used to games, so there will be challenges for sure,” Brunner said. “We're hopeful that our fans are grateful for the fact that they can come in once again, and we’re grateful that we can actually have them come. So we need everyone to buy in."
Deborah Stroman, an adjunct associate professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the faculty adviser of the Carolina Sports Business Club, said admitting some fans will probably help with financial issues, but also said there need to be specific plans for prevention and tracing to ensure that the stadium’s reopening happens as safely as possible.
Stroman, who is also the president emeritus of the UNC Black Faculty and Staff Caucus, said she was also keenly aware of how any outbreaks or issues caused by the stadium’s reopening would disproportionately affect people of color, including the families of players, or those working in stadium sanitation crews and other facilities.
“I am concerned about those people of color — the Latinos, Asians, the Blacks — who work in the cleaning crews at UNC,” Stroman said. “They're the ones who will be disproportionately affected by this if things should go awry because they have to do the cleaning. So, once again, we have to lift that up.”
Audrey Pettifor, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Gillings School, said reopening the stadium is not a good idea, calling it "crazy."
She said she had doubts about just how safe thousands of people gathering in a stadium could really be, especially considering the amount of infrastructure required for safe entrance and exit from the stadium, as well as the difficulty of enforcing sanitation and mask protocols on individuals.
“If everyone wore masks, then we would say the risk of transmission is probably really low, no matter the size of the crowd,” Pettifor said. “But if there's a hole in that chain, depending on the number of positive people in that crowd, the number of people who are unmasked and the number of people who are closer than six feet apart, then our risk starts going up.”
With the Virginia Tech game only 10 days away, the answers to those questions are still up in the air. Robert Malekoff, the director of the undergraduate sports administration program, said with all the unknowns of the situation, it's justified to wonder whether or not admitting fans is the right decision.
“I'm not saying I'm against having fans at the games, but it is a fair question to ask,” Malekoff said. “If we're bringing a number of people in from outside the community and then they’re going to go back to their community, is that something that some people might define as irresponsible or inadvisable?”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.