NASCAR COVID-19 ReOpen The 2018 Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte
In this Sept. 29, 2018, file photo, fans watch as drivers race during the NASCAR Xfinity series auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Some fans have been coming to the Coca-Cola 600 for decades, but they weren't allowed into Charlotte Motor Speedwaý on Sunday due to COVID-19, leaving the grandstands empty and many disappointed. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan, File)

As North Carolina eases its COVID-19 restrictions, questions remain about how professional sports will return to the state 

In tiny Altamahaw, just outside Burlington in Alamance County, the lights came back on at Ace Speedway over the Memorial Day weekend. 

Given the go-ahead by county officials, speedway owners Robert Turner and his son Jason Turner reopened the quarter-mile stock car track with few restrictions on May 23 despite statewide limits of gatherings of more than 25 people outdoors. That night, more than 4,000 spectators jammed the stands around the track, few observing social distancing practices of staying six feet apart and even fewer wearing masks.

While some sports fans and those opposed to restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic applauded the event, those in favor of a more cautious reopening process were dismayed to see exactly what they feared would happen as North Carolina gradually lifts its  stay-at-home restrictions.

Just days before, Governor Roy Cooper announced the state would enter Phase 2 of easing restrictions starting on May 22. Phase 2 allows restaurants to resume on-premises dining while using social distancing practices, as well as the opening of businesses like salons, tattoo parlors and swimming pools. Phase 2 also allows sporting and entertainment events to be held, with guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and discourage people from gathering in large groups

“Executive Order 141 allows sporting and entertainment events to occur in large venues for broadcast to the public, so long as the events occur in large venues and spectators are limited to the mass gathering limit of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors,” saids Amy Adams Ellis, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

RELATED:  NC Will Loosen COVID Restrictions Today. But A Top Epidemiologist Calls The State’s Trends ‘Worrisome.’

With professional and college sports halted in March due to COVID-19, many fans have longed for a return to competition. Last week, governors of New York, California and Texas expressed support for professional sports returning to their states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took to Twitter on May 18, writing, “New York State is ready and willing to partner with major sports teams that are interested in playing games safely, without fans. If our professional sports teams can make it work (& be safe) on their end, we’re supportive.”

No return to normal for pro teams 

What a return to professional sports would look like in North Carolina  isn’t totally clear at this point. Before relaunching their seasons, leagues will have to contend with not only health-related variables like social distancing, coronavirus testing for players and whether or not to include fans, but also financial impacts to stadium budgets, player salaries and the cost of playing in certain venues as opposed to others.

Here in North Carolina, home to several professional and minor-league sports teams, city leaders in places like Charlotte—home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, as well as an MLS team slated to start play in 2021—are erring on the side of caution when it comes to resuming play.

“(These teams) are great partners with the city of Charlotte,” says Jeremy Mills, spokesperson for Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles. “(Mayor Lyles) definitely values having pro teams here—she was an advocate for the MLS team coming here. We’ve been following the medical, science and public health experts—that’s where the governor is getting his guidance from. We’re following the governor’s orders and recommendations.” 

Those recommendations were in effect at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 was held on May 24 without fans in the stands. NASCAR has tentatively opened its 2020 season with social distancing rules in place (only 16 pit crew members, including the driver, for example), no fans present and a limited schedule to reduce long-distance travel for teams to races.

But in a state that prides itself on being the birthplace of stock car racing, there are many smaller tracks dotting the map that don’t fall under the purview of a larger corporate structure like NASCAR. So, in cases like Ace Speedway, county governments are stepping in to allow the opening of events that might not take place elsewhere in the state. This has created confusion with the state advising one thing and counties applying their own interpretation. 

In the case of Ace Speedway, Alamance County Attorney Clyde Albright invoked the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble — usually reserved for freedom of religion and speech — to justify reopening the raceway. 

“This exemption retroactively applies to earlier executive orders,” Albright said in a statement released prior to the speedway opening. “Significantly, the governor’s language in the exemption has changed from ‘order’ to ‘strongly urges.’ The governor recognizes that he may only urge people engaged in exercising First Amendment rights to practice social distancing and other disease-control measures. He cannot Constitutionally limit the number of people who can peaceably assemble under the First Amendment.”

Albright and several other Alamance County officials did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.

As professional sports leagues weigh all the variables on reopening and work with state and local governments to proceed safely, the games we once knew will almost certainly change. And with the unpredictable nature of a pandemic like COVID-19, that evolution may continue for sports seasons to come.