Hundreds, and possibly more than 1,000, fans can now attend Idaho high school sporting events amid the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic.
Idaho’s State Board of Education and the governor’s office released its third attempt in three weeks to allow more fans into high school games Thursday. The latest version allows schools to fill their gyms to 40% capacity or admit four fans per athlete, whichever is higher.
The new exemption would create a large carve-out for school sports in Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s Stage 2 order, which limits public and private gatherings to 10 people or fewer. It still requires fans to wear facial coverings when sitting less than 6 feet from those outside their household. But it removed all penalties for not enforcing those requirements.
The exemption applies to high school and middle school athletics. It does not apply to college or professional sports.
“We’ve heard a lot from folks who want to be able to attend their student’s games and to support them, whether they are athletes, cheerleaders or members of the band, etc.,” said Mike Keckler, a spokesperson for the State Board.
“We took a look at what was in place and tried to figure out a way to develop more protocols to allow more people to participate, and to do it in a safe manner. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
A large gym like Borah High’s, which seats approximately 4,000, could fit up to 1,600 fans at 40% capacity under the new exemption. The previous version limited schools to two fans per athlete for both home and away teams. That added up to 76 for a basketball game and up to 84 for a wrestling dual.
The exemption does not require local schools to throw their doors open to fans. They can still set their own, more-restrictive policies.
BOISE-AREA SCHOOLS WILL STILL LIMIT FANS
Members of the 5A and 4A Southern Idaho Conferences in the Treasure Valley will continue to take a cautious approach. They will not allow fans to fill their gyms to 40% capacity, the league announced in a press release Friday afternoon.
Instead, they will allow four fans per athlete for home teams only. Fans of road teams cannot attend.
The league added some schools will allow students to attend home games. It did not say which schools or how many students, but it said it could start as early as Friday night. Students and families will receive more details from their schools.
The league also has yet to make a final determination on how many fans can attend its upcoming district tournaments.
Central District Health still has a health order in place in Ada County limiting attendance to less than 50 people, including athletes, coaches and fans, Central District Health spokesperson Christine Myron wrote in an email. It has also strongly recommended schools stop all sports.
Southwest District Health has no order limiting the size of gatherings. It oversees Canyon, Adams, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties.
IDAHO SCHOOLS JUMP TO ALLOW FANS
Some schools took quick advantage of the new rules. Rexburg’s Madison High hosted Idaho Falls’ Thunder Ridge on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the top 5A boys basketball teams in the state. An online broadcast shows approximately 100 Madison High students packed shoulder to shoulder into a student section, performing coordinated cheers throughout the game.
Few, if any, masks can be seen on students or adults in the video.
The new exemption explicitly requires students in student sections to wear a mask if seated closer than 6 feet apart. It also says student bodies can attend home games only. But a Thunder Ridge student section is visible in the video, and the exemption no longer lists any penalties for not following the guidelines.
Previous exemptions for high school sports said the State Board of Education would order forfeits on a second offense and that a team must end its season on a third offense.
The new exemption removed those punishments. It only says “schools will adhere to these recommendations.”
“If we get a complaint, we will certainly take a look at what is alleged,” Keckler said. “And, if required, we will write a letter to the administrators and let them know about the complaint and remind them of what the protocols are.”
COVID-19 BATTLE FOR SPORTS
Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature has pushed back against Little’s coronavirus response since convening last week. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, proposed a resolution that would lift all restrictions on gatherings. He specifically targeted restrictions on high school sports, saying the goal was to have them removed before district basketball tournaments started in late January and early February, the Idaho Statesman previously reported.
Little announced Wednesday he would order the State Board to create a new plan allowing more fans into high school sporting events, citing declining case numbers and hospitalizations. The Idaho House of Representatives then temporarily held the resolution Thursday, Idaho EdNews reported.
Idaho’s seven-day average of new cases dropped to 696.1 Thursday, down from its peak of 1,650.3 on Dec. 10 and its lowest since Oct. 18. And as of Monday, statewide hospitalizations were under 300 for three consecutive days for the first time since Nov. 2.
The new exemption also lifts the ban on fans at wrestling tournaments. Previously, fans could only attend duals.
It also allows bands and dance teams to attend and perform at games. They will not count toward the gym’s capacity.