CONWAY — Fans began filing into the stadium an hour ahead of kickoff at Coastal Carolina University’s game opener Friday night — the first game on campus in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — likely drawing the most amount of people to campus since the start of the pandemic.
Tailgating was sparse on the cool, fall-like night. Football players did not do their typical Chant walk into the stadium, slapping hands with fans on their way in to take on the Fighting Camels of Campbell University.
Ticket collectors at the gates wore face masks, shields and gloves, checking bags and making sure people were wearing masks upon entry. Some fans entered with their masks, — which are mandatory — pulled below their nose or chin and no temperature checks were taken.
It doesn’t take long to notice the season is different.
But it isn’t keeping fans and students away.
John Kelly, father of player Silas Kelly, along with three others were the first to set up their tailgate in a lot near the middle of campus. Kelly said he’s still looking forward to the season, despite the pandemic.
“I’m thrilled that I get to watch my son play,” he said. "I was fearful that I wouldn’t. It’s unfortunate the fans can’t fill the stadium … but at least they can still get to play.”
Kelly said the lot where he typically tailgates is usually packed with other tailgaters and regulars.
“I don’t know what to expect tonight,” Kelly said. “We are the first ones.”
The student section was full of students at the start of the game, not practicing social distancing with people sitting close together and some with their masks pulled below their faces or off completely.
As the first half wore on, paying attention to the mandatory rules faded away, as students roared at three touchdowns — many with no masks on and embraces for friends and strangers alike.
At halftime, a considerable amount of the student section exited the stadium and headed back toward on-campus housing, in packs of well more than 10 and nary a mask to be found.
Back inside Brooks Stadium, the stands on each side were about 10 percent full, with pockets of families not wearings masks.
Kevin Davis, assistant athletic director for media relations at Coastal Carolina University, said the average paid attendance as reported to NCAA was 15,025 per game in 2019.
“The capacity limits are managed by number the of tickets available and also takes into account the players, coaches, gameday staff, media, band, spirit teams, etc. to remain under the approved number of 5,000 people total inside the stadium,” Davis said.
While the school announced a "capacity" crowd of 5,000, the fans in the actual stands was closer to 2,000.
This year, the university is prohibiting tents that encourage congregation of people and tailgating once the game begins and after the game. People are only allowed to tailgate for two hours prior to the game.
Dr. Peter Paquette, interim vice president for student affairs at CCU, sent an email to the student body Thursday, reminding them to follow safety guidelines to help make “informed decisions” about maintaining a safe campus. Paquette said CCU public safety would disperse any groups larger than 10 people.
“Please be reminded that parties and gatherings both on AND off campus remain prohibited by the University,” Paquette wrote in the email. “Students who host and/or attend large gatherings will be held accountable through the conduct process.”
As of Friday, CCU announced 82 new coronavirus cases on campus ahead of its home game, with 79 being student cases and three being employee cases. To date, 265 cases have been reported on campus.
Coastal Carolina’s next home game is Oct. 3 against Sun Belt Conference rival Arkansas State.
Nick Masuda contributed to this report.