FARGO — North Dakota State originally wanted to allow more than 14,000 fans inside the Fargodome for football games this fall despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Officials from Fargo Cass Public Health raised concerns, and the university lowered the figure to 10,000.
In discussions two months ago about what a football season during a pandemic would be like, Bison athletic director Matt Larsen and Chris Ohman of Fargo Cass Public Health said the school requested a maximum attendance of 75% of the dome's listed football game capacity of 18,700. Seventy-five percent of 18,700 is 14,025.
Those discussions happened before the Missouri Valley Football Conference postponed its fall season to the spring. After the conference and NDSU called off the fall season, the Bison scheduled a single game against Central Arkansas in Fargo on Oct. 3. NDSU requested a maximum capacity of 10,000 fans at that game, which FCPH agreed was a manageable number.
"They did propose the 75% number when we were still anticipating a fall season," Ohman said. "We raised concerns that there was no way you could get any kind of social distancing with that number of people inside the dome."
Representatives from NDSU, FCPH, the Fargodome and the city of Fargo — including Mayor Tim Mahoney — were involved with the discussions on Bison games.
FCPH has no authority over the size and attendance of events. It only provides information and advice, Ohman said. The final decision is left up to the event organizer, in this case NDSU.
Ohman said FCPH also consulted with other sports entities like the F-M RedHawks and the Red River Valley Speedway in determining their attendance protocols this summer.
"Our role is (to) identify areas of risk and work with the organizers to mitigate them," Ohman said. "We really want to have a voice to help them understand the current pulse of the situation. We want to have a seat at the table."
Ohman and Larsen said NDSU was amenable to changing its proposal once public health officials explained what they believed to be risks associated with allowing 14,000 fans inside the dome. Both said NDSU agreed that 10,000 was a better number for the Central Arkansas game.
"Ten thousand is where we felt much more comfortable. We believe that is a controllable, manageable number that will allow our fans to properly social distance and take the steps necessary to be safe," Larsen said.
Fans at the Central Arkansas game will be required to wear masks the entire time they are in the dome. Those who do not have a mask when entering the building will be provided one. NDSU said fans who do not follow instructions of Fargodome personnel or refuse to wear a mask risk losing their season tickets.
Ohman said early discussions centered around only requiring fans to wear masks as they entered the dome with the option to remove them once they got inside, but health officials had concerns and recommended the requirement to keep fans masked. NDSU agreed and Larsen now calls the mask mandate "non-negotiable."
Fargodome manager Rob Sobolik said the dome will have multiple entrances and concession stands open in an attempt to minimize fans congregating for long periods. He said that will be an added staffing expense for the facility, but it is needed to ensure safety.
Sobolik said employees he's talked with are comfortable working an event with 10,000 fans, but acknowledges some of that might be driven by the opportunity for more work hours. The dome has not been used for major events for about six months.
A continuing area of concern, Ohman said, is fans gathering before and after the game at entrances and exits. That's why FCPH recommended having as many open as possible the day of the game.
"We're also asking that the arena open earlier than normal to spread out the time fans can enter, and we support fans using the closest exit to their seats after the game so everybody is not jammed up trying to get out the main entrance," Ohman said. "That will be advertised during the game."
Health officials urged NDSU to have contingency plans for the game because the coronavirus pandemic remains "a fluid situation," Ohman said.
"They have to be mindful of the current situation. If things were to change in terms of where the state of North Dakota is on the risk dial, they might have to consider altering their plans," he said.