On a cool, rainy late afternoon in 2019, the Tar Heels ran off the Kenan Stadium field after handily defeating Mercer, needing a win against NC State to head to a bowl game, and disappointed that the weather ruined what could have been another monster crowd in a season full of them in Kenan. A lot of fans decided to stay home against a FCS opponent, avoiding the rain and cold, comfortable in the fact that no matter what was to come, 2020 would bring back more of the same.
Wonder if those folks who skipped out on Mercer wish they had gone now?
We don’t need to relive what’s happened in the 21 months since the Tar Heels left Kenan that night. Sure, by the end of 2020 a few thousand fans were able to get inside to watch the team play, but we all knew it wasn’t the same. The band, for the most part, wasn’t there, the students really weren't there, and there was only so much excitement a greatly reduced crowd could gin up.
That all changes tomorrow night as thanks to the tireless work of researchers and healthcare professionals, as the feelings that have spread all around college football finally get their turn in Kenan. For the first time in nearly two years fans will head into a sold out Kenan Stadium after spending the day tailgating with their friends and family. It’ll be like nothing ever happened the moment “Here Comes Carolina” roars from the field and the team storms out of the tunnel.
Except we all know it’s still not quite back to the way it was.
So, in an effort to prep those of you who haven’t been back to the area since that last season, let’s talk a little about the changes you need to be ready for as Carolina takes the field tomorrow night.
First and foremost, we still live in a world with the Delta Variant of COVID-19, and there are still certain demographics that are unable to get vaccinated (children 12 and under). Keeping this in mind, the Tar Heels have changed things up slightly since the last time you were in the stadium.
The biggest concern most folks have is: “Do I have to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID test to get in?” Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham addressed this a couple weeks ago, specifying that there will not be a vaccine requirement or a testing requirement to enter Kenan Stadium. They also will not be requiring masks to be worn outside, though they are strongly encouraged. For example, this fully vaccinated cancer survivor will be there Saturday night and I plan to wear a mask most of the time I’m in the stadium just due to the close proximity I’ll be to other people for nearly four hours. Take that for what you will. On Wednesday, the GoHeels Twitter put out a handy sign explaining the stadium’s mask policy:
To back up the fact that getting vaccinated is the best option, the Tar Heels announced on Thursday the ability for people to get their shot before kickoff
We're excited to partner with @UNCHealthyHeels to offer Covid-19 vaccines before Saturday's game in Kenan + free tickets to a future @UNCFootball game for those who do!— UNC Tar Heels (@GoHeels) September 9, 2021
ℹ️ » https://t.co/VK8XwUCBtx#GoHeels pic.twitter.com/excsR0QoeO
The release goes on to spell out that they will have all three versions of the vaccine on site, and folks can get either their first or second doses depending on where they are in the process. Do note it’s not meant for the boosters, at least not yet, but if you hadn’t been able to make time to get a shot and are planning to go to Kenan, go ahead and take advantage.
Another change that was instituted last year that’ll continue this season is all payments will be cashless. One would suspect this won’t be a problem for most folks as we have mostly moved to a cashless economy anyway, but be aware that if you leave the card in your vehicle and bring a stack of cash you won’t be able to buy anything inside. Also following the trend at a lot of stadiums, you can pre-order many concession items in the GoHeels app and pick them up at particular stands, not having to deal with a line.
Finally, as you’ve probably realized, all tickets for the games and parking are completely digital. If you’ve attended any event in the past few months you should expect a similar experience in Kenan, if you haven’t, know the digital ticket process is pretty smooth as you just hold your phone under a scanner. Just make sure to have them up and ready, and your phone is charged prior to going into the stadium.
Pregame and Post Game
Other than those tweaks, though, the atmosphere around the game is going to be getting pretty close to the last time a full crowd was allowed in Kenan. Tailgating is going to be allowed, and in the link above Carolina even has a couple of other sponsored options if you want someone else to do the prep for you.
It’s Chapel Hill and the campus itself that may feel different.
For one, Franklin Street has compressed itself to allow for social distancing. On the main drag that starts at Linda’s and goes through the end, you’re going to see big barriers on either side turning the once four-lane road into two, as parking spaces have moved out and the sidewalk has doubled in sized. Be prepared for that if you like to stroll along the street in the hours before the game.
Also be prepared for just how empty the street is going to be of some businesses. The loss of the students from the pandemic knocked out a lot of store fronts. If you were planning to eat at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, Waffle House, Lulu’s (the former Spanky’s), or grab a drink at The Library, you’re in for a shock. All of those places were a victim of the shock caused by the pandemic, and so far they haven’t been replaced. Some old favorites are still there, though. Top of the Hill, Carolina Brewery, ‘Sup Dogs, Linda’s, Goodfellows, Four Corners, He’s Not Here, and Time Out survived and will be welcoming you back with open arms. All of the clothing vendors you know are also there and ready to get you geared up. Trust me, they missed you as much as you missed them.
On campus, Polk Place will be open and Tar Heel Town will be alive and well, though Polk Place is going to look a little different as more tents dot the landscape around Wilson Library and the Pit. These are all places that have been options for students to huddle, study, and eat outdoors to help minimize the time they spend inside. Also note the entire campus still has an indoor mask order, so if you go into a classroom building for any reason or decide to browse inside Student Stores to gear up, make sure you have a mask on your face as you do so.
Finally, if you don’t have a parking pass and instead plan to use Tar Heel Express, they will be operating as usual. Shuttles will start at 4:30 PM at the Friday Center and UNC Facilities lot, and 6 PM at Southern Village and Jones Ferry Road. Masks are required, and considering how many people use this option you’d be well advised to have it on as you wait for the bus. Tickets are still $5 for the round trip, $3 if you just want to go one way.
These changes are a small price to pay to get fans back into the stands and cheering on Saturday night. One last thing to remember: everyone out there helping you — the folks driving the busses, the people scanning your tickets, etc. — are all there doing their best. They are working while you are having fun, and for a load of reasons that job is just a little bit harder than it normally is. Be understanding, and remember where you were a year ago compared to now.
It could be...and has been...a lot worse.