Bank of America Stadium is limited to 5,240 fans for Carolina Panthers games under North Carolina COVID-19 requirements. (Don Muret / Staff)

A firsthand look at the cleaning and distancing now a part of Sunday at the stadium

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the new world of NFL stadium operations during the pandemic, disposable masks and hand sanitizer serve as gate giveaways, cashless is king and concourses are separated into one-way traffic zones.

Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, featured all three adjustments for their game against the Chicago Bears. Sunday’s contest was the Panthers’ second home game with fans in the stands and third home game overall at the 75,412-seat facility.

One-third through the regular season, Carolina is among half of the NFL’s 32 teams allowing fans to attend games.

At this point, the Panthers are limited to 5,240 fans in attendance, which meets the mandate of 7% capacity, per the state of North Carolina. It’s on the low end compared with other NFL teams admitting fans.

Each fan received a bag with a face mask and a hand wipe when entering the stadium. (Don Muret / Staff)

In Charlotte, the total number was most likely closer to 6,000 considering the stadium’s 150 suites are open, along with the 12 new bunker suites in the west end zone that sell for $300,000 a year.

Overall in uptown Charlotte, a Panthers’ game day has a much different feel during the pandemic. Three hours prior to kickoff, dog walkers outnumbered those wearing Panthers’ blue and Bears’ orange. That wouldn’t normally be the case along Morehead Street near the stadium.

One parking lot slashed its fee from the standard $50 to $6, a huge bargain for those driving to the game. Approaching the stadium, a purple shipping container was converted into a makeshift bar for a private function sponsored by Crown Royal. It looked pretty empty except for those playing the purple cornhole game.

The absence of ticket scalpers on street corners near the stadium had one Panthers fan questioning where they could find the entrepreneurs they’re accustomed to seeing in past seasons. An earlier check of the online resale market had game tickets starting at $250 a person.

Overall, the Panthers did a commendable job implementing new protocols, from posting signs outside the stadium spelling out the guidelines to friendly reminders from ushers and security personnel for fans to wear their masks after finishing their hot dogs and beer.

(Bank of America Stadium also serves as an early voting site and a tent on the main concourse with voting machines was open on game day).

Restrictions on attendance made it a breeze to walk through the metal detectors and get mobile tickets scanned. As fans entered the building, they could grab free masks and sanitizer, branded for Panthers sponsors Honeywell and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Once inside the stadium, there was plenty of room for fans to stretch out in the lower bowl.

The upper bowl is currently closed as part of the restrictions, but it felt like the Panthers could expand capacity to 7,500 to 10,000 attendees and still provide the same level of protection and comfort level.

For most fans, the biggest change was getting accustomed to adjustments in concourse traffic flow. 

Stanchions and plastic rope created one-way paths to keep proper distance. Those who found themselves taking the wrong route to their seats, restrooms and concessions technically had to keep walking until they encountered a U-Turn sign that allowed them to change direction. 

Some cheated and crossed under those ropes to avoid walking a greater distance than they needed to, and they were given gentle reminders by stadium operations staff to follow the appropriate signs.

For patrons accustomed to paying for concessions with cash (especially beer), those days are over in the post-COVID world. Food and drink operations are all cashless now tied to credit and debit card transactions.

It’s a consumer behavior pattern that could take awhile for some older sports fans to remember. What’s interesting though is Levy, the Panthers’ new food provider, accepts cash as tips at the belly-up stands. 

In that case, the threat of spreading germs through multiple hands distributing cash doesn’t seem to be a concern for the team and their vendor. Just a note on the mixed messaging to all teams as they convert to cashless.

The good news is, in general, the lines were much shorter to buy food and drink compared with full stadium crowds.

In Section 120 in the east end zone, there were no issues with fans, many of them cheering for the visiting Bears, to keep their masks on during the game. It’s an encouraging sign in a market that’s seen friction in some areas over that state requirement in public settings.

Twice during the game, stadium workers wiped down railings separating seating sections.

Toward the end of the game, the Panthers announced that fans could stick around to watch late afternoon games on the Red Zone Channel displayed on the two end zone videoboards. 

The move was part of the team’s effort to avoid crowding when exiting the stadium. It appeared most fans sitting in the bowl left within minutes after the final whistle and there weren’t any logjams getting out of the building.

The Panther’s next home game is a Thursday Night Football game, Oct. 29 against Atlanta.