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Richland head coach Brandon Bailey addresses a controversial call at the end of the first half of a PIAA Class AA quarterfinal playoff game against West Catholic, in York, PA., Friday, Nov.23, 2018.

Scholastic sports unite communities and build civic pride with their passionate rivalries and revered traditions.

But in the year of COVID-19, some traditions – including fans at games – might not be possible.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association reaffirmed this week plans to begin fall practices and competitions on schedule in most areas, including the Cambria-Somerset region, despite the lingering pandemic.

PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi said there will be no spectators, at least at the outset, due to limits on gatherings in keeping with guidelines from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“At this moment, spectators are not allowed (at games),” Lombardi said Wednesday following a PIAA Zoom meeting, at which officials voted overwhelmingly to go forward with sports activities.

We support the PIAA’s decision to begin play without fans.

There is already a risk to athletes, coaches, game officials and their families as they travel to compete in different communities.

We’ve seen mixed results at the professional level, with many Major League Baseball games postponed due to virus spikes. The “bubble” approach used in the National Hockey League, NBA and WNBA – with participants housed near a single competition facility – shows promise of succeeding, but with a system that is not likely practical for scholastic games.

Many college leagues – including the Northeast Conference in which St. Francis University competes – have canceled fall sports or postponed games until spring 2021.

In a July 16 special report, our Mike Mastovich noted that school districts were anticipating challenges with crowd sizes at games. Some had already developed plans to live-stream events to give fans an opportunity to follow their local teams if attendance limits are in place.

“We feel like it’s really important because parents and families still have a way to watch their son or daughter participate in sports,” Greater Johnstown Athletic Director Kerry Pfeil said, calling sports “a major part of the fabric of American society.”

Pushback to the no-fans decision quickly emerged on social media and in the state Legislature.

While Facebook groups offer petitions calling for fans at games, Scott Martin – a Republican state senator from Lancaster County – called on the governor to overrule the PIAA and open the gates of sports venues for fans.

“It is my belief that the Commonwealth can safely permit spectators, parents and family members to attend fall athletic events if proper mitigation measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Martin said in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday.

Basic mitigation measures for the novel coronavirus have included mask-wearing and social distancing – meaning fans would need to sit 6 feet apart.

State guidelines issued in June would limit gatherings in the “green” phase of COVID-19 to 250 people and 50% occupancy of a venue. The plans call for admitting “student athletes, coaches, officials, and staff only,” while “the addition of visitors and spectators will be contingent upon future health conditions within the state and local communities.”

Mastovich reported that the schedule will include heat acclimatization activities beginning Aug. 10, and formal practices starting Aug. 17. First competitions by sport are to be

Aug. 20 (golf), Aug. 24 (girls tennis), Aug. 28-29 (football) and Sept. 4 (cross country, girls volleyball, field hockey, and boys and girls soccer).

The PIAA said it will take a flexible approach, allowing school districts and conferences to modify start dates based on variances in their local coronavirus levels. The latest competitions could begin in order to complete the fall season and playoffs is Oct. 5, the PIAA said.

Schools must implement additional measures to make sports happen – including frequent cleaning of locker rooms and equipment, and routine temperature checks for participants – regardless of the outcome for fans.

Should supporters be given access to gyms and stadiums, how those fans respond will go a long way in determining whether they will be able to continue attending – and whether the games can go on.

Lombardi’s mantra – “Protect yourself. Protect others. Protect the season.” – is a practical mission statement that we urge sports participants and fans to embrace and put into practice.

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