As the UNC athletic department prepares to host sporting events at full capacity, many are expecting a long-awaited return to normalcy.
Many envision fans flooding into empty seats, noise levels erupting in anticipation and the all-too-familiar tune of "Hark the Sound" blaring from a marching band.
But like last year, those images may be just high hopes.
Instead, patients flood into hospital waiting rooms, delta variant cases erupt in Chapel Hill and the all-too-familiar coronavirus is surging after a period of supposed dormancy.
This is the current reality.
But on Sept. 11, Kenan Stadium will be at 100 percent capacity for the 2021 football season opener.
“We are excited to welcome our fans back to create a special atmosphere for our student-athletes,” Associate Athletic Director for Event Management John Brunner said in an Aug. 19 statement to The Daily Tar Heel. “We will continue to follow the University’s COVID-19 Community Standards as well as conference standards and continue to work closely with University Leaders, our colleagues throughout the UNC System, peer institutions and public health experts to evaluate safety protocols and utilize best practices moving forward.”
But based on the statistics available, packing fans close to one another to watch sporting events could make conditions even worse, though outdoor events pose a lower risk than indoor ones.
COVID-19 cases rising in North Carolina
The positive COVID-19 test rates in North Carolina have remained over 10 percent since the first week of August. The average number of COVID-19-induced hospitalizations is also continuing to soar in the state, recently eclipsing 2,800 as of Aug. 25 — with most ICU beds filled by unvaccinated people in medical centers within the Triangle, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
During the past month, state health officials reported that 94 percent of the new cases came from people that were unvaccinated. In a population that's only 48 percent fully vaccinated as of last Friday, these trends could continue through this month and beyond.
UNC Media Relations said the decisions made by the athletic department were done in consultation with the Orange County Health Department, along with UNC’s infectious disease experts and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Requirements for entry
UNC Athletics is requiring masks to be worn at all indoor sporting events. It follows a mask mandate reinstated early August by Orange County health officials for all indoor venues. Masks are also encouraged to be worn while attending outside games.
“We have confidence the university will follow guidelines established by the state to ensure safety for students and fans at any events,” Orange County Community Relations Director Todd McGee wrote in a statement. “We encourage everyone to get a safe, effective and free vaccine.”
As of right now, all spectators need to show is a ticket, and anyone is clear to enter any UNC sporting event. This includes football, as the program has elected to not require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
OCHD remains in contact with UNC as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the state, but no change has been requested regarding the University’s policy on sporting event attendance.
Audrey Pettifor, an epidemiology professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, had a few concerns regarding the practicality of the University’s plan.
“It definitely feels risky to be packing that many people into a stadium, seeing the case numbers in North Carolina that we're seeing at the moment,” Pettifor said.
Orange County alone is nearing 10,000 total cases, with UNC approaching 2,500. More than 300 cases have occurred among UNC students and employees since August, according to the University's COVID-19 dashboard as of Thursday.
Systems for checking an individual's health status prior to entering have the potential to help further ensure fan safety. While Pettifor recommended it as a possible idea, she expressed some doubts.
“We've certainly seen some of the big concerts where you either have to have proof of vaccination or having a negative COVID test,” she said. “I think the question is, 'Does the University have the capacity to implement a system like that?' It’s unclear to me.”
The plans put into place by the North Carolina Athletic Department could turn out to be successful and bring a close-to-normal football experience in Chapel Hill. But another massive schoolwide outbreak could force Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham to implement limited fan attendance before the season starts once again.
Time will tell what UNC athletics plans to do moving forward with the rise of positive COVID-19 cases.
“The unfortunate part with COVID is you just don't know how you're going to do,” Pettifor said. “And so, I would say your best line of defense, if you want to get back to a normal life and go to sporting events, is to get vaccinated. That is your best protection — that and masks.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article of this article incorrectly stated when UNC will play their first home game this football season. The team will host their first game at Kenan Stadium on Sept. 11. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.