“I would just like to say thank you to everyone who worked so diligently with the governor to make this common sense decision,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County School Board.
Earlier today, Gov. Roy Cooper announced during a press conference that the limit on outdoor stadium attendance, which threatened to quash the festive atmosphere of Haywood County’s legendary Pisgah/Tuscola game scheduled for Feb. 26, had been raised from only 100 spectators to 30 percent of stadium capacity.
“We have reason for hope in N.C. Fewer people are getting sick,” Cooper said, referencing declining positive diagnoses and increasing vaccinations in the state.
“Thanks to the citizens of Haywood County who have cried out to the governor’s office, as well as my fellow board members, who have stayed the course during this trying time,” Francis said. “I also appreciate the hard work of our administration, Dr. Bill Nolte, Dr. Trevor Putnam and Dr. Jill Barker, to keep us focused on the goal and working hard to get it resolved.”
Haywood County’s rivalry game usually draws crowds of 10,000 to 15,000 but when officials appealed to North Carolina High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker to raise the NCHSAA’s 100-person limit, they couldn’t gain any traction. A pair of bills in the House and the Senate also stalled.
Finally, things started to turn around late last week, thanks to a what Francis called “the hard work and dedication of the Mayor of Canton [Zeb Smathers] both out in front, and behind the scenes.”
“This was a joint effort involving a lot of people, including our legislative delegation in Raleigh,” Smathers said. “Brian’s been a friend and I think he helped convinced the governor that we could do this safely. This is important to us and to Haywood County families, and I think the governor understands this.”
The movement also benefitted from another pair of heavy hitters, former congressman and NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, and Asheville-area Rep. Brian Turner. Turner told The Smoky Mountain News that Smathers had reached out to him, asking for assistance.
“Elected officials in Western North Carolina need to look at the region as a whole, and when Zeb reached out, I told him I’d be happy to help,” Turner said. “This is a good example of how relationships between various levels of government are supposed to work, where we can all count on each other to help out.”
Turner explained that he reached out to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen as well as the governor’s office.
“I tried to help them understand from a local level how important the Pisgah/Tuscola game is, and give them confidence that the schools, coaches and athletic directors would do everything they could to keep people safe,” he said.
Shuler said he spoke to some members of Cooper’s staff over the weekend, and texted the governor to let him know how he felt.
“I mean, you go to the Asheville airport and there’s more than 100 people in there,” Shuler said. "Obviously as a football fan myself - and I have a nephew that plays for Tuscola and friends whose kids play all over the state - I could only imagine what it would be like if I couldn’t watch my own son play. And from the mental side, we need a break from COVID, and what better way to do it than to be outside, watching our kids play sports.”
Francis said he wasn’t yet sure how tickets would be distributed for Friday night’s game, but that it would be a priority that the parents, grandparents and relatives of participants – including players, cheerleaders and band members – would receive first consideration.
Gov. Cooper’s new executive order, which eases a number of coronavirus-related restrictions like the curfew, mass gathering limits, and last call for on-site alcohol consumption, goes into effect at 5 p.m. on Feb. 26.
This is a developing story. Check back with The Smoky Mountain News as updates become available.