A state directive issued Wednesday limits attendance at Virginia’s outdoor high school sporting events to 250, drawing concern from local and elected officials.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the executive order during a news briefing on COVID-19. The Virginia High School League plans to begin the state’s football season Feb. 22, after it was postponed last fall. Spectator attendance at prep basketball games is limited to 25.
“Will more people be able to come watch their kids play sports? I hear that every day,” Northam said. “Yes, they will. Next week, sports start moving outdoors. So starting this Monday, we’ll expand the number of spectators allowed at outdoor sporting events up to 250, provided everyone maintains their social distance,” Northam said during the briefing.
Modified Executive Order 72 specifies, “For sports played outdoors the total number of spectators cannot exceed … the lesser of 30% of the occupancy load of the certificate of occupancy for the venue or 250 spectators per field. Spectators must wear face coverings at all times and ten feet of physical distance must be maintained between spectators who are not family members.”
All coaches, officials, staff and players must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms prior to admission to the venue.
The order doesn’t include language allowing the attendance of cheerleaders and members of school marching bands separate from the 250 total.
“The point to all of this is the [COVID] numbers are coming down. We recognize that; it’s all good news. The numbers of vaccinations are going up,” Northam said. “But we still are not out of the woods yet.”
Northam said mask-wearing, social distancing and other practices will be required for everyone at outdoor events, including those who’ve already received the COVID vaccine “for the foreseeable future.”
In a letter dated Feb. 17, Southwest Virginia lawmakers Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, Del. Israel O’Quinn and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, urged the governor to specifically allow band members and cheerleaders to attend games and not be counted in the 250-person limit.
“While we understand the need for limitations and precautionary measures, the current restrictions are disproportionate and disjointed in their application,” they wrote. “This is unfair to these students. Anyone who has attended a sporting event recognizes the important contributions of these groups. They are active and integral participants, not spectators.”
The letter called the limitation “arbitrary,” especially for schools with larger venues. Bristol’s Gene Malcolm Stadium, for example, has a seating capacity of 5,400.
Bristol, Virginia school officials are expected to announce plans Friday to classify cheerleaders and band members as participants not included in the spectator total.
“Although we appreciate the governor's consideration of the concerns raised by Southwest Virginia superintendents and lawmakers about the ability of our band and cheerleaders to participate in outdoor activities, we still believe the Executive Order is vague and unclear,” Bristol Virginia Superintendent Keith Perrigan wrote in an email. “Our band and cheerleaders are very clearly participants in football games and the amended Executive Order does not specifically address this issue, leaving us to draw our own conclusion. Bristol Virginia Public Schools will release our plan for our first football game, which is scheduled for February 27, on February 19.”