Wolf's veto of bill to give schools authority on fan issue survives override vote

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks to media at York Grace Brethren Church in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The issue of allowing fans, especially parents, at high school sports events has become a hot-button topic in Pennsylvania recently.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf won a legislative victory on the issue Wednesday.

How the governor makes out in court, however, is yet to be determined.

State House Republicans lost a vote to override Wolf’s veto of a bill that would have given school boards the ability to make decisions on sports and extracurricular activities, including whether to allow spectators, and if so, how many. It had passed the House earlier this month with 150 “yes” votes, but the override tally, 130-71, fell slightly short of the supermajority required.

The state Department of Education has been asking schools to comply with Wolf’s  gathering restrictions, which had been set at 25 indoors and 250 outdoors, until a court ruling came down last week that said such limits were unconstitutional.

The Wolf administration is appealing that ruling but on Tuesday failed to get a stay of the order. Because of the ruling, Wolf acknowledged Tuesday the state’s 25/250 limits on gatherings were not legally binding, “at least for the moment,” and thus are voluntary.

The override vote: During floor debate on the override vote, Minority Leader Frank Dermody warned that acting like the coronavirus is going away “is folly.”

“This is about politics,” said Dermody, D-Allegheny. “This is not about the safety of our children. It’s not about the welfare of student-athletes.”

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, called the proposal a return to common sense.

Rep. Anita Kulik, D-Allegheny, said a high school athlete in her district suffered a broken arm last week, but the child’s parents were not at the game.

“We hold parents responsible for the well-being of their children,” Kulik said. “I wholeheartedly believe that parents have inherent rights to be where their children are.”

Although Democrats are in the minority in the House and Senate, Wolf has not lost a veto override vote since he became governor.

While the spectator issue has played out in the courts and the Legislature, a number of districts in the state have already opted to go their own way and allow fans, including the Altoona Area School District, which will allow up to 3,400 spectators at Mansion Park Stadium — 33% of its capacity — for Friday’s game against Cumberland Valley. That is the biggest crowd announced so far in the state.

At a news conference Tuesday, Wolf said he monitored attendance at football games last weekend — days after the judge’s ruling — and said “there were very few schools, if any, that had big, big crowds at their events.” He surmised that people “self-regulated” and stayed away to avoid crowds.

Local news: In the York-Adams League, games last weekend featured very few fans, with some games not allowing any fans.

On Wednesday, however, Central York announced on its athletics Twitter feed (@centralyorkath) that the school is working on a plan to get spectators into all events based on social distancing guidelines.

But Red Lion, on its athletic Twitter feed (@rlathletics), said no tickets will be available for its Friday home football game vs. South Western.

Schools can “safely work spectators at events,” said Holly Farnese, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association.

Athletic directors don’t want to go against the governor, she said, but “it’s really tough to tell parents they can’t come and watch their children play.”

PIAA guidance: The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for school sports, told member schools that Wolf’s caps aren’t mandatory and that each school can make its own decision on crowds at games.

“If schools decide to increase the 25/250 limits, they should exercise caution and good judgment in setting numbers for attendance at indoor and outdoor sports,” wrote the PIAA’s executive director, Robert Lombardi.