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Health risks exist as CCU prepares to welcome up to 5,000 football fans

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brooks stadium.jpg (copy)

Brooks Stadium will be limited to 5,000 occupants during home games, which is inclusive of both teams, staffs and media.

CONWAY — If the gates of Brooks Stadium are open for a football game, there is no way Travis Dannelly is going to miss seeing the Chanticleers take on a visiting team.

Dannelly, a former CCU football player now working at Conway Medical Center, is a diehard Coastal Carolina fan. He, his wife and three kids tailgate for each game alongside other families. He even serves on the alumni association board.

Coastal Carolina University received approval from the South Carolina Department of Commerce on Sept. 8 to host spectators at fall sports home events at Brooks Stadium, the HTC Center and CCU Soccer Stadium. The approval is in accordance with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s Executive Order that outlines exceptions for large gatherings throughout the state.

According to CCU’s athletic department, Brooks Stadium’s revised capacity based on CDC, accelerateSC, NCAA and Sun Belt Conference guidelines cannot exceed a total of 5,000 attendees — inclusive of teams, coaching staffs, game day staff, game day operations, working media, band, spirit teams, volunteers and spectators. Games at HTC Center and CCU Soccer Stadium cannot exceed 150 occupants.

When the Chanticleers take the field on Friday, Sept. 18 against Campbell University, the first major event held on CCU’s campus since the coronavirus shutdown in spring and a game being broadcast on ESPN3 at 7 p.m., Dannelly will be there.

He even bought his family CCU masks to wear while in the stadium.

“If there is a Coastal game, I’ll probably be there,” Dannelly said. “It’s getting back to seeing your neighbors, seeing your friends, with something other than the challenges we experience every day with COVID, I think that’s something we can all gravitate toward ... that day, when you’re there, you’re a Coastal fan. You bleed teal.”

Working as an administrator at CMC, Dannelly also knows the risks of going to a football game. He said everyone has to make the best decision for themselves and their loved ones as to if it is wise for them to attend a football game.

The Dannelly family is changing up their tailgating plans for before the game. Fewer tents will be put up to accommodate families, masks will be worn and the party must have fewer than 10 attendees.

Dannelly also hopes that fans of Coastal, or any other college, still support their teams this year. He believes sports are a much needed escape that also builds a sense of community.

But the public health precautions are necessary, Dannelly said, and he applauded the university for taking the appropriate steps to allow for the football season to continue. If fans take the virus seriously, and behave appropriately, Dannelly thinks the season will go smoothly.

“I feel confident taking my family into that setting,” Dannelly said. “As passionate as you are with football, your faith and your family you have to take care of yourself health wise. I think it shows compassion and common sense that (CCU) is trying to mitigate those challenges so the season can continue.”

Now that the Chants have approval to have fans at Brooks Stadium, they intend to take full advantage.

“Our plan is, as of right now, to have fans,” head football coach Jamey Chadwell said. “I don’t know exactly how that works or what that’s going to look like from that standpoint, but I do know that our administration has been working hard to have fans and have them here. Obviously next week, once we’re there in game week … I do know we’re going to plan on having fans.”

The players are also ecstatic about the decision.

Redshirt senior defensive end Tarron Jackson is excited to be able to play in front of a crowd.

“I know a lot of teams weren’t blessed to have fans and stuff at their games . . . us being able to have some fans from around the area and family is going to be big," Jackson said.

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Trey Carter is grateful to have fans in the stands, even if it is a significantly reduced amount.

“That was a blessing because my parents have been worried about if they can watch me play,” he said. “I know the guys are excited about that, that we’re actually fortunate enough to have some fans. I mean, 5,000 is a lot better than zero, so that was definitely a good thing.”

A calculated risk

Given a worse-than-normal tourist season during the summer, shoulder events, like CCU football, could be another way businesses make money.

“Tourism generated by CCU football in the fall will be much appreciated and felt by our local tourism community,” said Jonathan Paris, executive director of Sports Tourism for Visit Myrtle Beach. “Each of the teams coming to Myrtle Beach arrange for their own hotel accommodations for the traveling party. Traditionally those rooms are in Myrtle Beach, which is a very nice boost in the fall shoulder season.”

Cheering for the Chanticleers during their first home game against Campbell could put fans in attendance at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

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Shouting along with cheerleaders, celebrating a touchdown or yelling at a bad call all require more oxygen. Even though the game will be outdoors, any action that could get the virus into the air is threatening to the health of Chanticleer fans.

“The risk is increased in such settings when individuals are loudly talking, cheering, or yelling, all of which may produce more particles containing virus that also may spread further,” a DHEC spokesperson wrote.

Fans expecting to attend sporting events this year need to wear a mask and practice social distancing in order to prevent college football from turning into a spreader event, DHEC experts warn.

Coastal Carolina University’s police department will be the main agency to make sure fans are following social distancing guidelines both before, during and after the game.

“Restrooms, concessions areas, parking lots, common areas and entrances and exits can be high-risk activity areas for disease transmission. Those areas are required to have disease prevention protocols in place as part of the event host’s plan that’s reviewed by the S.C. Department of Commerce and DHEC before exception to the mass gathering order would be granted,” said the DHEC spokesperson in an email.

The game comes after the university announcing 57 additional positive coronavirus cases amongst students from the time period of Sept. 3-9. As of Sept. 9, the university said that 162 were in quarantine, with 80 in complete isolation.

The school welcomed back students in mid-August, but has seen a rising number of reported potential coronavirus-spreading parties and other activities that pushed school officials to issue a warning to students and faculty that it could send students away once again.

In the meantime, the school is monitoring the situation, but has not exceeded its threshold that would push it back to Phase 0 of the Coastal Comeback Plan, which would vacate campus activity once again.

“The COVID-19 Transition Advisory Group has identified specific metrics and are performing regular risk assessments of the campus to guide movement within the COVID-19 operational phases. The University remains in Phase 1,” said Martha Hunn, CCU’s associate vice president and chief communication offer.

Proper preparations

The statewide application to host a "large gathering" asks questions about attendance, the facility the event will be hosted and if it is a ticketed event. The application explicitly says “the South Carolina Department of Commerce makes no representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied, regarding the adequacy or completeness of the plans submitted by the applicant for review.”

CCU outlined its plans to keep football game attendees safe in its announcement that fans would be allowed into the stadium for the 2020 season.

According to CCU Athletics, parking lots will open two hours before the announced kickoff times and close one hour after the conclusion of the event. Tailgating will be allowed at the individual’s discretion. However, tents and other items that encourage large groups are prohibited. Any tailgating that does occur must be maintained within the individual parking space area and cannot be located in or around public green spaces.

Fans will be seated in pods of two and four affiliated guests throughout the stadium with 6 feet of distancing between pods. Chanticleer Athletic Foundation (CAF) premium seating in the West Zone and loge boxes will feature a blended model which provides both social distancing in the stands and space for CAF donors inside the West Zone Suite. CAF donors will be assigned seating based on priority points and available seating options.

Fans will be asked to wear face coverings at all times with the exception of when actively eating or drinking.

The initial approval by the S.C. Dept. of Commerce can be revoked if the state determines it is unsafe to continue hosting events on campus or in Conway.

CCU Police will monitor parking lots and areas around the stadium to monitor social distancing practices — assuring that there will be eyes watching potential tailgates that violate the rules ahead of kickoff.

“Officers will be working to make sure attendees comply with physical distancing requirements inside the stadium and in the parking areas,” Hunn said. “If public safety personnel observe attendees gathering in a larger group, they would ask them to disperse and remind them to please comply with COVID-19 prevention measures.”

A DHEC spokesperson said some classic football game activities — concessions, tailgating and sitting close to strangers — all increase the odds the virus can be transmitted.

According to CCU Athletics, concessions will be open and will follow DHEC protocols related to food and beverage service to include, but are not limited to, physical distancing in lines, cashless and/or touchless payment options where applicable, and pre-packaged food and beverage items for sale.

All restrooms will be open, with max capacities identified based on the number of fixtures and the appropriate 6 feet of physical distancing within the restroom area. Hand sanitizer stations will be available at each entrance gate and throughout the stadium.

And while public safety officers can’t be everywhere at all times, football fans and the public will need to follow public health recommendations on their own for everyone to be as safe as possible.

“It is also individuals’ responsibilities to protect themselves and others by adhering to the public health actions that are essential when being in public: wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from others, frequent hand-washing, and staying home altogether if sick,” the DHEC spokesperson said.

Myrtle Beach Reporter

Tyler Fleming covers Myrtle Beach and Horry County for the Post & Courier. He graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in history and political science. Tyler likes video games, baseball and reading.

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