DURHAM, N.C. — College basketball season is almost here. Teams are in full swing for practice, and games start in just a couple weeks. Last year’s season was marked by COVID-19 tests, empty arenas and games cancelled because of the pandemic.
Most schools are still figuring out exactly what this year will look like. But it’s sure to be different than the 2020-21 season.
Duke starts with an exhibition game against Winston-Salem State at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Oct. 30. North Carolina’s first exhibition game in Chapel Hill will be Nov. 5 against Elizabeth City State.
The stakes are high for teams. The Atlantic Coast Conference this year won’t allow teams to reschedule games if too many players test positive for the coronavirus. Instead they will have to forfeit. Vaccinated players do not have to get tested for the virus.
Duke’s men’s basketball team had to pull out of the ACC tournament in March after a positive COVID-19 test. N.C. A&T also had to drop out of the MEAC tournament on the same day because of the coronavirus.
College basketball is big business in North Carolina and around the country. With the countdown on, many fans are waiting to hear how they can finally go see a game in person again. Thousands of screaming fans in an indoor space could be a recipe for more COVID-19 cases on campus.
But with coronavirus case numbers still high, schools are still trying to figure out how they can have thousands of screaming fans in indoor arenas.
Top-ranked Gonzaga has already told fans 12 and older that they have to either show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
The Tar Heels and the Blue Devils are both in counties with indoor mask mandates, so fans there can definitely expect to wear masks until further notice.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported recently that Duke will likely have a policy similar to Gonzaga, with fans required to show their vaccination cards or a negative test before being allowed in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke Athletics spokesman Mike DeGeorge said the university has not yet made a final decision on the vaccine or negative test requirement.
“At this moment, we do not have a timetable for an announcement,” DeGeorge said in an email.
The Blue Devils have their first public scrimmage, The Countdown to Craziness, on Oct. 15. The first regular-season game for Duke will be Nov. 9 against Kentucky, kicking off Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.
Down the road at UNC, athletics officials say they have not made a decision yet on coronavirus rules for fans.
“We have over a month until our first exhibition scrimmage on November 5 and will make those decisions in the coming weeks,” spokesman Matt Bowers told Spectrum News 1.
As university leaders finalize plans for bringing fans back to basketball games, they may look to other sports and the entertainment industry.
The tools venues can use are fairly limited: require masks or make people show their vaccine cards or a negative test. They can also limit the number of people allowed in.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who play at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, require all fans to complete a health survey on their way in and wear masks in the arena, which is required by a county mask mandate.
The Carolina Panthers, in Charlotte, requires fans to follow a county mandate and wear face masks while indoors, though not while outside in the bleachers. But the Las Vegas Raiders have taken a different approach, requiring fans over 12 years old to show proof of getting vaccinated. The Raiders don’t have medical or religious exemptions for the vaccine policy.
The Raiders, however, do not require masks while in the stadium with its fully vaccinated crowd. Children who can't get vaccinated and people who have only received one shot are still required to wear masks.
The Red Hat Amphitheater, a large outdoor concert venue in Raleigh, requires people to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the last 72 hours.
Many venues are following local requirements for indoor masks, if there are any. But just a handfull, at least in North Carolina, are going beyond county mandates to require vaccines or negative tests.
North Carolina's colleges and universities only have a few weeks left to finalize their plans to try to keep basketball fans safe. Schools in areas with local mask mandates will have no choice but to require masks indoors, but vaccine requirements for fans could still be on the table.