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Some Pa. schools aren't waiting for state decision; they're allowing fans at football games

MIKE WHITE
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Gov. Tom Wolf

The legislative bill that gives Pennsylvania high schools the power to decide the number of fans at sporting events is still up in the air.

Some Pennsylvania schools, however, are not waiting for a decision on the bill. They’ve already made their own decisions on attendance.

High school football in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League started Friday. While some schools did not allow spectators because of COVID-19 concerns, some games had more people than the state’s gathering limit of 250 for outdoor events.

More:State lawmakers urge Gov. Wolf to sign bill, let schools set spectator limits for sports

More:BREAKING: Judge strikes down Pennsylvania's pandemic restrictions

Upper St. Clair and West Mifflin were among the schools that had more than 250 fans, not counting the players, coaches and officials. Upper St. Clair played at home against Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair athletic director Kevin Deitrick said about 390 fans attended. A total of 410 tickets were given to only Upper St. Clair players, cheerleaders and a 40-member pep band.

West Mifflin played host to Thomas Jefferson and fans from both schools attended and West Mifflin athletic director Scott Stephenson told WTAE-TV that the crowd was about 500.

McKeesport played a home game against Belle Vernon and about 200 fans watched. Fans were on opposite sides of the stadium, with about 130 on McKeesport’s side.

Also, Montour’s district decided late last week that it would give two tickets to every football player, band member and cheerleader. Montour has 50 football players, 80 band members and 15 cheerleaders.

It should be pointed out that representatives of the schools that had more than 250 people in attendance did not feel they were breaking any orders from Gov. Tom Wolf or health departments. The Allegheny County Health Department’s rules for sporting events are for outdoor facilities to have no more than 250 people, with pods of a maximum of 100. Some schools were considering the two sides of a stadium as different facilities.

“We thought our place as having four different groups — the home side, the visiting side, the field and the press box,” Upper St. Clair’s Deitrick said.

The state House and Senate recently both passed a bill that allows school to decide on crowd sizes for sports. The bill now goes to Gov. Wolf, who has said he will veto it. But because the House and Senate both passed the bill by two-thirds of majority, they can override Wolf’s veto. The whole matter might not be cleared up until next week.

Upper St. Clair originally was not going to allow fans, but the school district changed its plan last week. Deitrick pointed out Upper St. Clair’s stadium holds a little more than 6,000.

“We didn’t do this half-cocked,” Deitrick said. “We took the plan to our solicitor, the upper administration was involved. We went under what we thought was allowed and not allowed. We worked hard on this. Everyone was socially distant. Everyone had a mask. The place was still pretty empty.”

Upper St. Clair, McKeesport and West Mifflin marked bleachers for fans to seat at least 6 feet apart.

“I think all parents should be allowed,” Thomas Jefferson coach/athletic director Bill Cherpak said. “Everything was fine. I thought West Mifflin did a pretty nice job with it. Their stadium is so big and I think they did every possible thing they could. There was an announcement about every 10 minutes about a mask.”

McKeesport school superintendent Mark Holtzman said there was one big reason the school allowed spectators.

“It wasn’t done to be uncooperative with the state or anyone else. The effort we’re trying to make in our stadium was for our families, our parents and the kids. Everything we did was for the children,” Holtzman said. “If we exceeded the total number of individuals by maybe an extra 50 people, it wasn’t done as an act of defiance.”

Wilson, Shikellamy to also likely allow fans: The Reading Eagle, meanwhile, has reported that the Wilson School Board has approved a plan to expand spectator capacity beyond the state's COVID-19 mandated levels.

Wilson will allow 609 fans, into Gurski Stadium for contests. That figure includes players, coaches, medical staff, bands, cheerleaders and others considered essential. Still, that will allow another 300 or so fans — likely parents, though that has not been determined by the district — to see the game in person.

According to the (Sunbury) Daily Item, Sunbury officials and Shikellamy school leaders are saying they're not concerned with an email from the PIAA telling them to follow Wolf's order of no more than 250 people at outdoor gatherings.

The email from PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi was forwarded to Shikellamy board members by Superintendent Jason Bendle on Thursday ahead of a vote to allow 500 fans inside the stadium for the Sept. 18 home opener.

Shikellamy school director Jenna Eister-Whitaker said the board read Lombardi's email before Thursday's vote. They voted 9-0 to allow 500 fans contingent on a letter of support from City Council, which takes its vote on the letter Monday.

In the email, Lombardi asked all districts to remind their schools to keep working through the legislative process if they wanted change.

The York-Adams League is scheduled to begin its football season on Friday night. For now at least, the first week of Y-A League football games will be subject to 250-person limit, which includes the participants on the field.

Y-A officials canceled a vote Friday about whether to allow spectators at games and implored member schools to abide by Wolf's mandates until the political process had played out.