CLEVELAND — This content is part of our 88 Counties in 88 Days coverage, which focuses on the current issues Ohioans are facing in this election year.
Thursday is going to be game day like no other for the Cleveland Browns in Cuyahoga County.
As football fans return to FirstEnergy Stadium amid a pandemic for the first time this season, they won’t be barking in the Dawg Pound or celebrating in big crowds.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the Browns organization to do an end run. For the first two home games this season, the team is testing a plan to allow 6,000 fans into a stadium designed to hold more than 67,000.
“We are excited to be hosting fans, even in limited numbers. It’s such a critical element to creating a game-day experience and creating a home field advantage. We were in Baltimore this past weekend with no fans and you could definitely feel not having fans there," says David Jenkins, Chief Operating Officer of the Browns.
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Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam want more fans, up to 24 percent of capacity. So they want to prove they can bring the approved 6,000 fans in safely.
“It’s okay to say we were disappointed and not quite what we were hoping that we were looking for," Jenkins admits. "Hopefully that continues to evolve and we achieve higher capacity beyond the first two games.”
Approved by Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health, the Browns plan requires fans to enter the stadium at one of four pre-assigned gates and arrive at a suggested time to limit congregating.
They will have to sit in small sections among friends with between one and 10 seats. Those not in use will be secured with zip ties.
The upper-level is closed for now. As for the Dawg Pound, you won’t hear barking or see players swallowed by fans in the end zone.
Fans will have limited access to parts of the stadium outside their designated zones.
To limit contact, the stadium is now cashless, though new kiosks will allow fans to convert cash to pre-paid cards.
Seating in the club and dining areas is spread out like everything else in the stadium, including the urinals.
Fans must wear masks and follow health orders. The team warns a prosecutor will be on site to help enforce the rules.
There’s two big parts of home games that draw people from all over the county and beyond: Tailgating and street life around the bars and restaurants downtown.
The city’s health orders prohibit tailgaiting anywhere. And the city also has strict rules for social distancing in and outside of bars that cut normal capacity significantly.
At a news conference on Thursday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams promised to sack any big gatherings and enforce rules.