The debut of CHI Memorial Stadium has arrived.
Just over a year after breaking ground in July 2019, the soccer-specific stadium in East Ridge just off Interstate 75 is ready to open its gates.
A historic day for the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC will require extra safety measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 750 fans will be allowed at Saturday's 5 p.m. home opener against Tucson FC in a stadium that seats 5,500.
The League One game for the United Soccer League will be only the second professional sporting event in Tennessee to allow fans since the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies hosted the Orlando Magic on March 10. The first was the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15.
On March 12 the Red Wolves, Chattanooga Football Club and Tennessee high school sports announced they were postponing their seasons. The last sporting event in the area to be played with fans was a prep baseball game at Sequatchie County High School on March 14.
The allowed attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions is only 25% of what the Red Wolves' stadium can now hold, as the $125 million CHI Memorial Stadium development is not yet completed. The bleachers on the opposite side from the team benches have yet to be constructed, along with sky boxes and the executive club.
"I think now that we are a few months into what is the new reality of gathering people for large sporting events that people have a renewed enthusiasm, but a renewed enthusiasm for safety," Red Wolves General Manager and President Sean McDaniel said. "That goes for everyone on the Red Wolves' stadium staff, the fans, players and coaches. Saturday is the day we have been looking for, but in a new reality where all the precautions are taken seriously and where we have to distance people from each other in the stands."
Members of the Red Wolves' stadium staff will be required to wear face masks and gloves at all times, while fans are not required to wear masks in the venue but are encouraged to do so.
Fans will be spaced out in the crowd, and no one is supposed to sit directly in front or behind another group. All transactions from concessions to parking passes will be cashless and a clear bag policy for entry is required.
Inside the stadium there will be hand sanitizing stations in several locations. Stadium staff will be required to sanitize highly contacted areas and stations frequently. Workers will all have their temperatures checked before entering the stadium, which will undergo a thorough cleaning after each home game or event.
The rules mirror those of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, McDaniel said.
"We are all kind of starting the engine again, so to speak," McDaniel said. "With the TSSAA allowing for tackle football and girls high school soccer, we are following the rules generally the same way. As we try to reemerge into the large public sporting events, it's important everyone adhere to protocol and to keep your distance while enjoying the match."
While the Red Wolves will allow fans for their home opener, the Chattanooga Football Club — which plays Saturday at 8 p.m. for the NISA Independent Cup championship at Finley Stadium — will be closed to the public.
"The city and club made a joint decision out of an abundance of caution to not have fans with everything that's going on," CFC head coach Peter Fuller said. "We can read the newspapers and other sites and realize that we have had a big spike in terms of [COVID-19]. I think the club is trying to make sure we look after the community, and the city is doing the same thing."
The USL League One protocol requires the Red Wolves, along with every team in the third-tier professional soccer division, to have weekly coronavirus tests. Coach Jimmy Obleda and the players will wear masks whenever they are around fans or in the locker room. Players who are on the bench will be spaced out and wear masks unless subbed onto the field.
Tucson FC personnel received temperature checks before checking in to The Chattanoogan hotel prior to Saturday's match against the Red Wolves. Both teams are also checked for temperatures and players required to affirm that they have not been exposed to coronavirus or had symptoms before they can play. If a player tests positive or has a high temperature, they are required to isolate right away.
Fans will be able to sit in seat-back sections along with general admission areas and the supporters section, which is behind the north goal.
CHI Memorial Stadium will not have its planned stadium restaurant open this weekend, but will have food trucks. The stadium will sell domestic beers for $4 and have craft beer options for $7. Markers will be laid out for fans to adhere to social distancing when in lines.
With a return to live sporting events, the Red Wolves are prepared for what they hope is the start of a bright future at their new stadium, the first professional soccer-specific venue in the state.
"The players are excited to be the first to ever play soccer in CHI Memorial Stadium," McDaniel said. "History is being made. There can never be a first group to get to do this again. We are thrilled to see this stadium and want to make this a fun and safe experience for everyone."