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ECU eliminates swimming, tennis to save money

East Carolina University eliminated all of its swimming and tennis programs on Thursday to compensate for an estimated $10 million financial deficit heightened by COVID-19, officials said.

The decision was announced during the second special Board of Trustees meeting on the matter in four days. It cuts ECU’s varsity sponsored sports from 20 to 16 as part of a plan to generate $4.9 million in long-term savings, according to the announcement.

Second-year athletics director Jon Gilbert, who has volunteered to take a 20 percent pay cut for at least one year, later said, “It’s still not enough, from where our deficits are going to be.”

There was no immediate plan announced for Minges Natatorium, which is part of the Minges building that also holds the Pirates’ basketball arena for games, basketball practice courts, university classrooms and offices. In addition to the pool area serving as the home for ECU swimming and diving, it also has been used for local recreational and high school meets.

“We’ll keep the pool for now, at least in the short term for academic purposes,” interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson said. “We do have scuba diving (classes) and the like. ... I can tell you that from a competitive and NCAA perspective, it’s an inadequate facility and it’s not a priority for investment.”

Men’s and women’s teams in tennis as well as swimming and diving were discontinued, eliminating positions for coaches and other team personnel, and it will save in student-athlete scholarship costs. Gilbert, who was emotional Thursday describing conversations with coaches, estimates athletics revenues for this fiscal year to fall $10 million short of expenses.

The ECU athletic fiscal sustainability report released Monday showed the Pirates led the American Athletic Conference with 20 varsity sports despite being in the bottom half of the league in revenue and expenses. ECU joins Central Florida with 16 sports; four schools have 19 teams, five others have 17 or 18.

Sponsoring 16 sports is the minimum requirement to be a Division I-A football playing member.

Swimming and diving is among ECU’s most successful athletic programs. The Pirate men took first place in a four-team field this year at the American Athletic Conference championships in Houston, the team’s fourth AAC title in six seasons. The AAC is now down to two schools who have men’s swimming and diving, and four in the women’s division.

“So much talent both in the pool and out for so many many years,” said Pirate swimming and diving coach Matthew Jabs, who just completed his third season as head coach, in a social media post Thursday afternoon. “Gone. Just like that. Facilities don’t win championships, people do. And we had the best people.”

Gilbert said the Minges pool is owned by the university. The facility underwent an overhaul of its water filtration system and air temperature control system in 2013, and a year later added indirect lighting and improvements to acoustics.

“We knew we needed to make a long-term financial commitment to the aquatics center, based on the state it is in,” Gilbert said. “I’m really talking about the entire space — the aquatics center, the locker rooms, offices, etc. Ultimately, there are still some academic components that will run in Minges and that will continue to happen, and then the chancellor will look at what the future looks like for that facility.”

In tennis, the Pirates paid to use River Birch Tennis Center across from J.H. Rose High School and an indoor facility on Wimbledon Drive.

“We will be able to let those leases expire and not renew those leases,” Gilbert said. “Certainly that played a factor as well, as we looked at the multitude of factors of what sports it would be.”

A total of 68 student-athletes and nine coaches were affected. ECU will continue to honor the scholarship amount for athletes, but also give them a full release to transfer without NCAA hardship if they choose.

Women’s tennis is an NCAA-mandated head count (full scholarship) sport. The other three are equivalency sports, which allow for partial scholarships.

Many of the Pirates’ budget issues are attributed to a string of five straight losing football seasons, declines in season ticket sales and fan attendance. After three straight 3-9 seasons under former coach Scottie Montgomery from 2016-18, ECU finished 4-8 in 2019 under first-year head coach Mike Houston.

The highest-attended game last year in 51,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was announced as 38,094 versus William & Mary for family weekend.

Since the end of football season, the effects of COVID-19 changed the Pirates’ financial outlook.

“Had COVID-19 not happened, we may have looked at one or two sports (cut), but not four,” Gilbert said.

While voicing that other universities have made similar decisions, ECU officials also were aware Thursday of the negative perception of cutting sports.

“I say frequently that Pirates are passionate and compassionate,” Mitchelson said. “We certainly are passionate when it comes to the success of our sports teams, and we certainly have deep empathy for the loss of those four sports. Our hearts go out to the affected coaches and student-athletes. ... These student-athletes did absolutely nothing wrong and, in fact, we have great respect for them and admire them. They deserve our support and they will have it.

“I do think this matter, in general, was pretty simple. ECU does not possess adequate financial resources to host 20 sports programs successfully. It is as simple as that.”


News
Group seeking home for cats following owner's death from COVID-19

People who knew Holly Ferrara would attest to the fact that her cats were her life. In two years of volunteering with the rescue group Saving Graces 4 Felines, she adopted three of them. But after their owner’s death from COVID-19, two of those cats are in need of rescue again.

SG4F co-founder Marilyn Thompson said Ferrara’s neighbors, who volunteered to care for her cats while she was hospitalized, have stepped forward to provide homes for two of her four cats. But following the 67-year-old woman’s death on April 19, the nonprofit agency is still looking for homes for Ferrara’s two senior-adult cats.

“It was very obvious from the early days that the elderly cats were going to have a harder transition,” Thompson said. “What we’re trying to appeal to is someone who has a kind heart and will let these cats live out their lives.”

Thompson hopes that fears over reports indicating that pets can become infected with coronavirus will not cause people to be unwilling to adopt them. Some studies have shown that cats can contract the virus and can transmit it to other cats, but there is no documentation of cats transmitting the virus to people.

“We’ve had them four weeks now,” Thompson said. “There’s no risk to anyone for COVID-19 because they’ve been out of the environment, and they’ve been in a foster home.”

Ash, 15, and Inky, 13, are being fostered by Andrea Kitta until a permanent home can be found.

Kitta, an associate professor of English at ECU, is a folklorist specializing in medicine and is author of “The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination and Folklore,” published in October 2019. Her husband, Craig Brown, is a physician.

“We kind of figured we were the best people to take these cats in because we really knew a little bit more about this and we weren’t afraid of them,” Kitta said. “I know, just because there’s so little that we still know right now about this virus, that some people were still nervous. But we were pretty confident that it was going to be fine, and it has been.”

While Kitta and Ferrara never met as volunteers for SG4F, Kitta said she could relate to Ferrara’s apparent affection for her cats. She also saw fostering them as one way she could serve others during the pandemic.

“This is one of the things I could do,” she said. “I can’t sew, so I can’t made masks. I’m not a medical professional, but I can take in these cats.”

As a precaution, Kitta has kept Ash and Inky separated from her other cats. Even without any known risk of COVID-19 transmission between cats, she said she generally separates cats she is fostering from her other cats to give them time to make a transition to their new environment.

Thompson said the cats have adjusted fairly well in spite of the stress of being taken from their home. At first, the oldest cat was hesitant to eat.

“She’s still sad,” Thompson said of the 15-year-old cat. “I don’t know if people realize that pets grieve but it has been a transition for the cats.”

Saving Graces would like to have the cats adopted together if possible but will consider separate homes for the two indoor cats. Due to a donation, the adoption fee has been waived, although an application and veterinary references are required.

While the cats are considered healthy and up-to-date on their vaccinations, Thompson said caring for senior cats, which sometimes require a special diet or additional veterinary care, can be expensive.

Due to the pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings, SG4F and other animal advocacy groups have been less visible in recent months. Adoption events at local pet supply stores have been canceled for several weeks, and groups are having to rely on social media to promote pets for adoption.

Thompson, who had known Ferrara for several years, feels a personal responsibility to see to it that her cats find a new home.

“She called them her girls,” Thompson said. “I want people to know what a great person she was. ...This is important to me.”

Thompson said her friend’s death also serves as a reminder that people should have a plan in place that identifies family members or friends who will care for their pets if the pet owners become ill.

“I knew her (Ferrara) well enough to know she would have never left them (if she had a choice),” Thompson said. “Finding those cats their forever home is something that will allow us to bring this full circle.”

Visit savinggraces4felines.or to complete an adoption application or for more information.


Local
Rise in cases due to testing increase, health directors said

The number of coronavirus cases and the percentage of positive tests have been on the rise in Pitt County, but its due to the increased level testing taking place, the health director said Thursday.

As of Thursday, 230 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since mid-March, and about 60 people are sick currently, Pitt County Public Health Director Dr. John Silvernail said during a news briefing. A cumulative total was 224 on Wednesday.

The number of active case numbers in the county has typically run between 50-60 people, but positive test results have been rising in the last couple of weeks.

“So we’re probably somewhere in the 60 range of active cases, that’s a little bit up from where we had been but again we have in terms of total numbers being tested, more total numbers,” Silvernail said.

Tests results have been recorded for 69 days, with positive test results ranging from 0 cases to 10 cases a day. Recently there have been a few days when 10 people tested had positive results, he said. On average there are 3.31 cases a day, he said.

There has been growth in the cumulative case curve, which Silvernail said was due to an increase in testing.

Last week 7 percent of cases were returning positive, and this week 8 percent of cases were returning positive. He said it is likely increasing because the health department does not get the results of all the negative tests, which leads to an increase when calculating the results, he said.

As of Thursday, there were 20,910 confirmed cases of coronavirus in North Carolina up from 20,122 on Wednesday. A total of 716 people have died from the virus in North Carolina and 578 people are hospitalized.

The jump of nearly 800 new cases comes as Phase 2 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening plan is set to begin at 5 p.m. today. Restaurants and hair-care businesses will be allowed to operate under the new rules, but bars and gyms will not, likely until June 26.

Today is the official last day of instruction for students in Pitt County Schools, whose in-person instruction ended on March 13 due to the virus. The public schools and most private schools in the county have already announced plans for outdoor graduations, with some ceremonies taking place as early as next week.

Cooper’s latest order limited outdoor gatherings to 20 people, however, it said the prohibition did not apply to educational institutions or government operations. The Oakwood School and John Paul II Catholic High School indicated they are moving ahead with graduations on May 29 and 30. Pitt County Schools are scheduled to begin ceremonies June 1 and are reviewing the order. If changes are needed, they will make an announcement by Thursday at the latest.

The University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University on Thursday announced plans to resume in-person classes in August and end fall semester early as a precaution against spreading COVID-19.

Both campuses will start on Aug. 10, skip fall break and complete final exams before Thanksgiving to end the semester early. The measures are meant to eliminate travel related to fall break and guard against a possible second wave of coronavirus cases starting in late fall.

East Carolina University announced on April 27 it would resume on campus courses as planned on Aug. 24.

As part of the reopening strategy, the state and local leaders have encouraged the opening of fixed testing sites, Silvernail said. He said a few fixed testing sites might open in high population areas and mobile testing may take place in rural areas of the county. The testing plans will be announced likely next week, he said.

He does not expect a large increase in cases as North Carolina enters Phase 2, but if that does happen activities linked to virus spread may be limited.

“We do know people have been moving around already, we know some of our larger retail establishments have been open and have had many folks in them, so there’s already been some intermixing of our population without a big increase and I’m hopeful that that will continue,” Silvernail said.

The testing done right now is active surveillance for active cases. If 7-8 percent of tests are returning positive he said that means 7 or 8 out 100 people being tested have the virus. Most people tested for the virus have symptoms or had contact with cases, he said.

Cooper’s plan requires restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity. During the media session, Silvernail said he does feel safe enough to eat inside of a restaurant.

County officials said they will no longer hold regular media updates. Updates about the virus will still be available at pittcountync.gov.