The last time a Charlotte 49ers sports team competed in an NCAA event was in early March when both the women's basketball and softball teams picked up wins on Mar. 11.
Shortly after, Conference USA canceled all games for the rest of the athletic season in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. The rest is history.
Since then, life has become a lot different. Face masks and social distancing is the new normal and uncertainty is an everyday thing. One thing is certain though, athletic events will look a lot whole different this year and beyond. The days of maximum capacity crowds are over for now.
Charlotte athletic director Mike Hill and his team spent the summer working to find a safe way to bring back athletes to the playing field and eventually fans for the 2020-21 athletic season.
It’s a long road that will have a few bumps along the way. Hill and the Charlotte athletic department have put in measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus since athletes came back to campus on Jun. 15, even though the NCAA permitted voluntary workouts for select sports starting Jun. 1.
“We were not comfortable bringing back athletes until June 15 because we wanted to ensure the protocols we had in place were fully vetted by medical experts and people on campus,” said Hill. “We are pleased with the results thus far.”
The summer has seen a lot of big-name schools such as Clemson and Alabama report clusters of coronavirus cases inside their athletic departments. Charlotte has not seen any burst of positive coronavirus cases since athletes have come back.
“You’re seeing around the country teams have had outbreaks and we are fortunate that thus far we have not,” Hill said. “You certainly hold your breath every week there is a test.”
Some of the protocols that have been put in place include the weekly testing of athletes and the staff that works closely with them. Temperature checks and questionnaires occur on a daily basis when players and staff go in for the day. Social distancing is practiced along with masks. During the football season, football players will be tested for COVID-19 three times a week by Conference USA.
Unlike other years, the outside public isn’t allowed to attend the football team’s preseason practices.
It’s no surprise the new protocols have been an adjustment for everyone involved, but Hill likes the progress that has been made by the teams that have been back on the practice field.
“I give our coaches and our athletes a ton of credit. They are walking the walk,” said Hill. “It’s not easy to do. Part of why it’s not easy because it’s not a lifetime habit.”
Even though there haven't been many cases for the Charlotte athletic department, Hill knows there’s a chance a player or staff member could contract the virus. If that happens, Hill wants to ensure people there are appropriate plans in place.
“If we had an outbreak, a lot of it would depend on the numbers but we have protocols in place in accordance with university and county guidelines related to quarantine and contact tracing,” said Hill. “Depending on the number, that could affect your ability to practice.”
Another point of contact the school will keep a close eye on is when student-athletes travel to other schools for games. Given the athletes will be going into new territories, new protocols will also be implemented.
“I think you will see our coaches and health staff have our athletes on lockdown while we travel so they are not engaging with other people,” said Hill.
Another big question around the country for athletic teams is whether or not fans will be able to attend games. And if so, how many?
Programs around the country such as the University of Georgia and Tennessee have started to announce plans to bring back fans to football games at 20-25 percent capacity.
For Charlotte, there will be no fans for their home opener against Georgia State on Sep. 26. As of Sep. 1, North Carolina legalization does not allow groups of more than 50 people in outdoor spaces, which would prohibit fans at sporting events in the state as the state is still in Phase 2.5 of the reopening process.
“These decisions will be institutional,” said Hill. “For us, we unfortunately still don’t have a plan that we are prepared to announce. We have been working on a variety of scenarios all summer long from no fans all the way up to as maximum capacity that we can possibly accommodate.”
No matter what decision the athletic department decides to go with, it will be approved by the appropriate local health officials.
“The reality is that no matter what plan we develop, it’s gonna have to be a plan that our county and officials and state are comfortable,” said Hill. "We are a part of a larger community and we want to make sure we don’t contribute to community spread.”
Hill looks to wait to see what the status is for the state’s reopening plan to make any final decisions on the football's team other three home games. After the Sep. 26 opener, the next home game for the 49ers is Oct. 17 against Florida International.
The Charlotte football team will be the only team that is 100 percent going to take the field this fall as of Aug. 31. Men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball had their seasons postponed to Spring 2021 on Aug. 21. There has been no decision made on the cross country season.
No matter what happens this fall, Hill hopes the team and players focus on what they can during the time of uncertainty.
“What we have talked about as a program is that we need to focus on and what we can control here,” said Hill. “And that’s following our protocols and preparing for a season.”