"The pandemic continues to pose a very serious health risk. At this time, it’s the right call to reduce attendance at our athletics events to help protect our students, staff, and spectators," said Dan Talbot, PCPS’ senior coordinator of athletics.
According to the district, the new capacity protocols are as follows:
- Capacity at indoor events in school gymnasiums will be capped at 25%, or approximately 300 spectators.
- Capacity at baseball and softball games will also be capped at 25%, or approximately 200 spectators.
- Capacity at track and lacrosse events will be capped at 25%. The actual number of spectators allowed will vary depending on the facility.
- Restricted capacity at tennis events that take place at community tennis courts. Number of spectators allowed will vary depending on the facility.
Interestingly -- and possibly just as a coincidence -- this comes one day after a CDC report that found that two Florida high school wrestling tournaments from early December turned into a COVID super-spreader, resulting in at least 79 positive cases and one death.
Masks were not used because of the choking hazards that are associated with wrestling. While Polk County is not named in the study outright, a December outbreak led the Polk County school district to suspend all sports later that month. By that point, at least two dozen student-athletes had tested positive for the virus after the wrestling tournaments.
"A few days after, we started getting symptoms. And basically, from that one event that involved nine wrestling teams, every school but one ended up with a positive case from one event," Talbot told FOX 13 at the time. The outbreak also turned up cases among basketball, soccer, cheerleading, and weightlifting teams and their families.
Maria Hernandez, a Polk County School employee who worked at Mulberry High and was one of those in attendance for the tournament, died from COVID-19 three weeks later.
Practices and competitions returned in early January with attendance at 50% capacity. In Tuesday's report, the CDC advised that when COVID-19 transmission is high, schools should postpone high-contact athletic activities where it is not possible to wear masks, such as wrestling. While sports are still on, the new attendance cuts will last through the remainder of the school year.
Talbot said schools are already taking steps to ensure family members can attend their student-athlete’s games, even under the current 50% cap. The district said schools will continue those efforts under the new capacity protocols.
"We know how important athletics are to our students and their families. Our athletic directors are working incredibly hard to make sure families can attend the games," Talbot said in a news release from the district.
"Honestly, it sucks," Olivia Nixon, a soccer player at Ridge Community High School in Davenport, told FOX 13. "Having fans there for you whenever you’re playing there on the field, really gets you motivated."
Despite her disappointment, Olivia says she gets it.
"I understand. It’s Covid, and it can help to stop the spread, but it sucks," she said.
Administrators at each school will be responsible for developing procedures to ensure that attendance at their athletic events meets the updated capacity limits. School officials went on to say, don't be surprised to find out about even further restrictions as the school year and the pandemic continues.
"It may be necessary to make further adjustments to our athletic programs," Talbot said. "The first priority is always health and safety."