CONWAY — Amid a program-defining victory for its football team, hundreds of fans were defying statewide orders on Saturday afternoon at Brooks Stadium.
A lack of masks and social distancing throughout the stadium — both mandated by the South Carolina Department of Commerce — cast a dark cloud over No. 16 Coastal Carolina’s 34-23 nationally televised win over hated rival Appalachian State.
It even caught the attention of CCU Faculty Senate Chair Brian Bunton, as he took to Twitter to put his school on notice.
“The university’s own social media accounts are showing almost no fans obeying the ‘mandatory’ mask rule in the stadium,” wrote Bunton, specifically pointing to an Instagram post by the Chanticleer Athletic Foundation that shows fans celebrating without masks.
“‘Face coverings are required except while eating or drinking.’ I’m a season ticket holder, but this is why I haven’t attended a game this season.”
Throughout the home side of the stadium, there was little-to-no social distancing, while an estimated more than 80 percent of fans were not wearing a mask, instead basking in the sun and roaring at every big play on the field.
“The coronavirus can be spread between individuals in any setting in which they are not practicing social distancing and are less than six feet from each other, especially if they are not wearing face masks or cloth face coverings,” the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control told the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach.
“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.”
Both masks and social distancing (defined as 6 feet) are required by all in attendance in order to meet the exemption the university received to break Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order on large gatherings, with CCU allowed to host up to 5,000 for games, inclusive of both teams and their staffs.
“All season, since the first game was announced back in August, the Coastal Carolina University Department of Athletics has employed a consistent practice of evaluating and assessing every event that we host on our campus regardless of circumstances. If necessary, adjustments are made, and plans and protocols are reinforced, including those related to COVID-19 precautions,” the university said in a statement, refusing to answer a plethora of questions presented by the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach.
The university instead pointed to a number of communication channels that they utilize to educate fans, including social media, their website and email campaigns.
How does CCU use social media?
Ultimately, Bunton directly mentioned the mask mandate more times than any of CCU’s official social media accounts in the week leading up to the showdown with Appalachian State.
When questioned about how they educate fans about the rules of attending a game, the university offered a few avenues, including this tidbit:
“Regular social media reminders on GoCCUsports and CoastalFootball social media accounts.”
In a Post and Courier Myrtle Beach audit of five accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, it was found that the university did not mention anything about the mask or social distancing requirements at Brooks Stadium.
On Twitter, @CoastalFootball tweeted 78 times between Nov. 15-21, including 57 times on game day, with one link landing on a webpage that explained the rules, something the university calls “What You Need To Know.” The tweet did not mention this was the subject of the link.
Again on Twitter, @GoCCUsports tweeted 35 times over the same time period — including 18 on game day — with no mention whatsoever of health protocols or where to acquire more information. The account’s pinned tweet is also a video of the university explaining how to say Chanticleers, making no direct mention of health protocols that would allow teams to continue playing.
On the university’s CCU Athletics Facebook page, there were 26 posts made in the week running up to the game, with one link taking fans to a webpage with more details about the health protocols. Nowhere in the post did it indicate the purpose of the link.
Finally, between @CoastalFootball and @GoCCUsports on Instagram, there were 13 posts made, with no mentions of fan health protocols.
In total, between Nov. 15-21, there were 152 social media posts made on the university’s accounts, with not a single mention of mask or social-distancing protocols.
What about other forms of communication?
The university also pointed to its efforts via e-mail in order to keep fans updated on what can and cannot be done at a game on campus.
The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach purchased a ticket to the Chants’ game against Arkansas State on Oct. 3, with one email received over the course of the week, which also found its way into a promotions folder instead of an inbox, which is common for most businesses and universities.
In the email, there is a link to a four-page guide on what to expect at the stadium, with the second page dedicated to the new rules, which are also listed in the body of the email.
Among the stated rules:
- Face coverings are required unless eating or drinking.
- Fans who are listed among the CDC’s at-risk groups are especially vulnerable and should consider staying home and refraining from attending events.
- Pregame traditions like the Chant Walk will not take place in 2020.
- Fans will be seated in pods of two or four affiliated guests in socially-distanced pods.
- All fans are strongly encouraged to follow all signage both throughout the stadium and on the designated seating assignments.
Fans violated these rules many times over on Saturday, excluding the Chant Walk.
In absence of the Chant Walk, there were hundreds gathered near the home locker room after the game, awaiting both the team and cheerleaders to exit. Few masks were worn, there was no social distancing and body contact (hugs, high-fives, etc.) was happening freely. This was not the first time this has happened after a game this season, with the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach observing it on three occasions.
These interactions came after announcements were made throughout the game by the public address announcer, each time telling fans that following the guidelines was paramount to continuing to be able to attend games.
The university also pointed to “an increased number of event staff are stationed throughout the bleachers and stands to help remind fans of the protocols in place.”
While fans were mask-less for the nearly 4 hours the gates were open, event staff did not change that trajectory by stepping in. The Coastal Carolina Police Department was proactive in preventing fans from rushing the field after they consistently threatened to do so once the Chants took the lead late in the game.
Ejecting fans is not unprecedented during this college football season, with SMU doing so in early October when the student section violated rules.
Enamored with the big stage?
For the second time this season, Coastal Carolina was under the largest spotlight that college football can offer, with the flagship ESPN broadcasting the game and the Chants moving to the primary station when the Clemson at Florida State game was postponed due to COVID-19.
It was also the second time this season that the university was found to be in violation of the DOC’s written guidelines — the other when ESPN’s flagship station also broadcast the game, this time against Campbell University.
Throughout the week running up to the Appalachian State game, the university promoted with multiple tweets that the popular ESPN personality Marty Smith would be on the sidelines as the on-field reporter.
As Smith jogged out onto the field prior to the game, the fans were ready for him, loudly calling for him to recognize them as they hung over the rails just above the entrance for the home team.
Smith’s impression of CCU even made a postgame post by CCU’s Instagram account a full day after the game.
CCU declined to comment on whether or not ESPN’s presence had any influence over how Saturday’s crowds were permitted to break the agreed-upon rules of attendance.
Is the university monitoring sportsmanship?
Beyond the COVID-19 protocol violations, the student body that lined the home end zone was heard using foul language throughout the game, going well beyond the normal razzing that a visiting team is expected to receive.
In the university’s four-page handbook on expected behavior at games, it states the following:
- Chanticleer fans are encouraged to wear teal and enthusiastically support the Chanticleers in a sportsmanlike fashion.
- Conduct themselves in a manner that represents their University, the Sun Belt Conference and the NCAA® with dignity, honor and respect.
- Treat the visiting team, coaches and fans with courtesy and respect at all times.
- Not engage in cheers that are vulgar, crass or demeaning.
- Not become inebriated or belligerent.
The university did denounce any inappropriate behavior by fans, although it did not specifically address limits on alcohol sales.
“Before the start of each game, the Sun Belt Conference sportsmanship statement is announced. Any reported unruly behavior that violates policy is addressed,” the university said.
The same fans that started the game in the end zone were the same ones who finished the game there, celebrating with the team as they came off the field.
Even a member of CCU’s Board of Trustees, Jason Repak, was feeling the flack for how fans conducted themselves on Saturday, tweeting the following:
“Apparently CCU fans can’t have fun, talk a little smack or enjoy success. My mentions last week thru today question everything from my faith to my being a trustee. I bleed teal and then pull for our conference over the (world). Move on, I have. TxSt here we come.”
Where does the university stand on COVID-19 cases?
After a week with only one reported case, CCU announced on its own COVID-19 dashboard that there were eight new cases on campus for the week of Nov. 12-18.
It was the most the university had reported since the week of Oct. 14.
Currently, there are four students in isolation and eight under quarantine.
To date, CCU has reported 343 cumulative cases, with 310 among students, 31 with staffers and two affiliates.
The cases are all self-reported.
Horry County has seen a significant rise in COVID-19 cases in November, averaging 62.2 new instances per day, while also now hosting a high incidence rate of 277.1 (per 100,000) and a 14.5 percent positive rate, also deemed “high” by DHEC.
With the uptick of the virus in the community, those unknowingly carrying it and passing it along in large event settings is something DHEC is concerned about.
“Even those without symptoms can spread the virus and mass events increase the risk that more people could be exposed,” DHEC said.
“This is why it is essential for event planners to allow for adequate distancing between attendees and encourage mask wearing and for attendees to take responsibility to ensure they practice those actions themselves.”