When North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper stood at the podium on Tuesday and announced the state would not be moving into Phase 3 of reopening, but rather a hybrid Phase 2.5, it was only a matter of time before ECU formally announced its first home football game of 2020 would be void of fans.

A day later, ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert made the news official in a media release, closing the 50,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to the public. Only team personnel, broadcast members and limited media will be allowed into the stadium when the Pirates kick-off against UCF on Sept. 26.

Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the Carolina Panthers announced on Aug. 31 that no fans would be allowed at their Sept. 13 season-opener against the Raiders, ECU’s decision did not really catch anyone off guard, including the student-athletes.

“I try to always make sure that the kids know stuff like that before it comes out publicly,” head football coach Mike Houston said on Thursday. “So we told the kids first. They’re disappointed, I don’t think it was a shock to them. They knew that was a possibility.”

The Pirates have conducted two scrimmages in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this preseason and held various practices and activities with no fans in the stands. Even so, there will no doubt be a certain oddity to seeing the bleachers vacant, even with the piped in crowd noise that figures to fill the speakers when UCF rolls into town.

With UCF likely being a nationally ranked team when they face-off against the Pirates, there is a good chance the contest gets picked up by ESPN as a primetime game on a linear network. If that turns out to be the case, it will make life easier for ECU fans who can not even tailgate on university property during games this fall.

For the players, Cooper’s reluctance to allow no more than 50 people to gather in an outdoor setting means their families will not be able to attend the first game of the 2020 season.

“We’re still hopeful that maybe the governor might change his mind a little bit and at least allow families in the stands, I’m very hopeful for that,” Houston said. “You got a 50,000-seat stadium, I’m pretty sure we can socially distance a few 100 people. Hopefully we can have that opportunity.”

In the days after Cooper’s announcement, ECU football players took to Twitter to let their feelings be known. Other states have allowed college sports teams to have a limited number of fans in the stands, begging the question: why can’t North Carolina?

With the governor giving no signs that he will reverse course on his decision, ECU season ticket holders will now only be allowed to attend four home games this season, at best. For the over 10,000 individuals who purchased season tickets this off-season, ECU’s athletic department is offering a handful of options for refunds.

Fans can either receive full refunds for all impacted games, have the balance transferred to their 2021 account or have the amount donated to the Pirate Club.

While fans will not be allowed inside the gates on Sept. 26, the hope remains that Cooper will move the state into Phase 3 or beyond by ECU’s next home game on Oct. 17. By then, the Pirates might be allowed to have 15-20% capacity, but that all depends on the COVID-19 trends between now and then.

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