UND’s season-opening football game Saturday against Southern Illinois likely has fans excited, and perhaps none more than Anna Rosburg.

Rosburg, general manager of the city-owned Alerus Center, on Friday said she and the facility’s staff “feel fortunate and ready to go.”

“Definitely, this will be our biggest crowd since COVID,” Rosburg said Friday. “I feel fortunate to live in a place where we have declining (COVID) numbers and we have safe guidelines to be able to host an athletic event. We’re excited and proud. We’re hoping to get a nice win, but just having people back in the building is huge.”

The Alerus has held more than 150 events since the pandemic first struck last spring, not long after a large crowd attended a concert featuring KISS and former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth. That occurred on Feb. 22; by March, numerous events were being canceled. Since the concert, the events that have been held have been significantly smaller than a concert or sporting event.

Saturday marks a return to something resembling normalcy at the arena, although attendees will notice obvious signs that the pandemic continues.

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The game – UND’s first in the Missouri Valley Football Conference – begins at noon. Attendance is capped at 4,000, about 32% of the arena’s capacity for football and less than half of most games. Fans will be socially distanced, and many seats will be strategically vacant as staff work to maintain distances between those in attendance. While fans will be able to sit within their own groups – Rosburg calls them “pods” – they will be distanced from others.

The season-ticket holders who opted in for the season are expected to be able to attend, UND confirmed with the Herald. In addition, approximately 300 student tickets were distributed.

Other important notes about today’s game:

Concession areas will be open, but not all of them. Alcohol will be available. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible for the experience” while still maintaining COVID mitigation efforts, Rosburg said.

Masks are required by everyone in attendance and must be worn at all times. The only exception is when people are actively eating or drinking.

Suites will be open, and suite holders were allowed to have as many tickets as they choose (typically up to 16), since the Alerus has contracts with those suite-holders and must offer the tickets that were purchased on contract. However, the Alerus is encouraging suite-holders to limit the number of guests – preferably 75% or less of capacity. Fans in suites must keep masks on at all times, except when eating or drinking.

Hand sanitizer will be available throughout the building. On the suite level, it is sponsored by Red Pine Distillery. Fans may bring their own if they choose, Rosburg said.

The Alerus will not allow congregating on the concourses. “We ask that fans make their purchases at bars or concession stands and return to their seats to consume them,” Rosburg said.

The security gates through which fans pass will have some minor changes, including available hand sanitizer and paper boats into which fans will place items such as phones and keys. Rosburg encourages fans to “travel light” and only bring necessities.

There will be no tailgating.

Designated entrances will be open for football fans. Rosburg said Entrances 1, 2, 6 and 7 will be for the general public attending football. Entrance 7 is reserved for player-pass holders. Entrances 4 and 5 are designated for a vaccination clinic, through Grand Forks Public Health, scheduled for Saturday. The entrance into the Alerus Center from the CanadInn will be locked to maintain safety for those attending the clinic.

For the football game, doors open at 10:30 a.m.

Rosburg said she expects most, if not all, of these mitigation efforts to be in place throughout the spring football season. But, for Fighting Hawks fans who missed out on an entire fall season in 2020, it’s better than the alternative.

“It will be a different experience,” she said. “But these are the rules of engagement to have the privilege of hosting events during these times.”

UND President Andrew Armacost said the university is "slowly" taking steps to have more life on campus. Vaccinations will be key going forward for the upcoming fall semester; for now, the university will continue to be cautious about its events, he said.

"(Saturday's football game) is a way to breathe a little bit of life back into the campus, build school pride, but also to do it safely with that mitigation strategy," he said.

Armacost said UND Athletic Director Bill Chaves has been discussing COVID-19 protocols with leaders at the Ralph Engelstad Arena and the Alerus Center since last spring.

The Herald's Sydney Mook contributed to this report.