ECU’s first home football game is less than a month away. After the Pirates’ Sept. 12 season-opener against Marshall was postponed due a spike in COVID-19 cases within the program, ECU will now welcome UCF to Greenville on Sept. 26 to begin the campaign.

That, of course, will give the Pirates more time to prepare on the practice field after they have missed more than a week attempting to get their isolated and quarantined players healthy. Those extra two weeks will also provide Athletic Director Jon Gilbert and his department time to assess their options when it comes to having fans in the stands this season.

“We’ve had multiple talks with Dr. (John) Silvernail and the Pitt County health department,” Gilbert said last week. “He’s been extremely helpful and continues to be a resource for our department. We still are looking at, obviously, football games in the future, and I do feel like we will have fans in the stands, but I feel like it is going to be limited capacity. Really, it’s not going to be a normal process. It’s going to us working — or me — working through our chancellor and then working through Dr. Silvernail and then state and local health officials to determine what that attendance will look like.”

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is set to make a decision on whether to advance the state out of Phase 2 ahead of the current Sept. 11 deadline. Under the current guidelines, no more than 25 people are allowed to gather outside without some sort of exception from the governor.

Last week, Dr. Silvernail toured Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and Townebank Tower with ECU officials to gather information and assess seating options and limits that could be placed on the stadium this fall. The governor’s pending decision will likely play a large role in deciding what those seating options will look like and how many fans will be allowed in the stadium.

With the Marshall game canceled, the Pirates now have five home games scheduled and a slate of nine games overall. Since the pandemic started and it became clear attendance would need to be limited at sporting events this fall, ECU’s athletic department has offered fans the option to refund their season tickets, have the amount credited to their accounts for 2021, or donate the amount to the Pirate Club.

“Actually it’s been very positive about (fans) wanting to attend the games,” Gilbert said. “We really have had very little refunds. We’ve had some, but we’ve not had large numbers at this point. I do want to make clear: we had to do this (move the Marshall game) from a health and safety standpoint to move this back, but our anticipation is that we are going to play football.”

Gilbert said in his “From the Helm” correspondence last week that attendance in Dowdy-Ficklen this fall will be a “week-by-week decision based on guidelines we receive from local and state health officials.” He also said that if guidelines permit fans to be in the stands, seats will be given based on priority in the Pirate Club.

“I do want our fanbase to stay with us, stay with this team, stay with this athletic department,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to give the options out for refunds, donating tickets, etc. depending on what the remainder of our season looks like. I also want to point out that we still have to operate from a scholarship funding standpoint. These student-athletes, they’re still going to class and we’re having to fund right around $8 million for our student-athletes to attend class for scholarships. We want our Pirate faithful to still stay with us in that regard.”

According to his “From the Helm” letter, fans will be emailed this coming week with more information regarding their preference for the 2020 season. Fans wishing to opt-out of the season will need to make a decision of how they want their tickets refunded by Sept. 11. From there, the athletic department will be able to create a “ticket manifest” based on those that choose to attend games this fall.

Despite ECU moving all undergraduate classes online earlier this week, Gilbert said students also still figure into the department’s attendance plans this fall.

“Students are still involved in our attendance plan,” Gilbert said. “What we’ve done is we’ve tried to wait until the last possible minute to decide what our capacity will be based on state and local protocols. Absolutely, students are very much a part of our plan once we determine what that plan is.”

Twenty-seven days from now ECU will welcome UCF to Greenville, North Carolina, and hopefully, fans to the stands of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. In the next couple of weeks, the Pirates’ attendance plan will likely come into full focus as they continue to receive guidance from health officials.

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