It was an unusual start to the NFL season for Carolina Panthers fans. There were no fans in the Bank of America stadium for Sunday's first home game, and there were also fewer fans at Charlotte's sports bars.
At Steamers Sports Pub in east Charlotte, about 150 fans turned out for Sunday's start to the season. It was enough to keep the wait staff bustling, although in past years, the pub has typically had twice as many fans show up for the NFL season opener. Under Gov. Roy Cooper's health restrictions for COVID-19, restaurants can only operate at 50% capacity for indoor dining.
Owner Bill Nolan said his business has lost considerable revenue since restrictions were put in place in mid-March. He said he's emptied his retirement account to keep the restaurant going and he worries he'll lose more business as people get in the habit of staying home.
"Once people change their routine, sometimes it's hard to get them back into it," he said.
Even the fans who did show up to Steamers seemed dismayed by the light turnout. Ron Gale, who organizes a Philadelphia Eagles fan group at the sports pub each week, shook his head as he surveyed the spaced-out seating.
"It's different. It's weird," he said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words."
Still, he said he was happy to back in the company of other football fans for the NFL season.
At the Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, owner Matt Wohlfarth said he was happy to welcome fans back for the NFL season after losing "hundreds of thousands" of dollars over the last six months.
"It has been a horrible year," he said, "but this is good. We can socially distance 375 people, and it would appear we've got maybe 315 today."
He said he planned to add a projector screen outside the restaurant to lure in more sports fans in the coming weeks. While he doesn't agree with some of the governor's restrictions, such as cutting off alcohol sales at 11 p.m., Wohlfarth said just welcoming people back to his restaurant for the football season brings a welcome sense of normalcy.
"It's so great to watch a game," he said, smiling. "I don't care what they do before or after a game. I don't care if fans are in the stands or not, I just want to see the game."
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