Gov. Wolf lifts ban on spectators at interscholastic sports

Wednesday, September 2, 2020 | 2:12 PM

Spectators can watch football, soccer and all other high school sports this fall after Gov. Tom Wolf lifted his ban on fans at interscholastic athletics. But Wolf kept strict limits on gathering sizes, meaning many stadium seats and gym bleachers might stay empty.

Outdoor events are limited to 250 individuals, and indoor events are allowed no more than 25, according to guidelines updated Wednesday. Athletes, coaches, officials and other game-day workers count against those limits, so some sports will have room for spectators and others won’t.

“It definitely helps us out with boys and girls soccer, field hockey and some of those outdoor sports, but not volleyball,” Norwin athletic director Mike Burrell said. “And it still doesn’t address football, especially in the larger classifications. Once you put the teams and the cheerleaders, the band at home games, the support personnel, the officials, it still doesn’t leave any room for spectators.”

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi called the governor’s decision a “positive step,” but the PIAA wants more. Lombardi sent a letter to Wolf on Friday urging him to allow 25% occupancy at interscholastic events.

Volleyball and water polo especially need relief, he said. The current 25-person indoor limit not only prevents spectators from watching, it also makes the games difficult to organize.

“Twenty-five is too restrictive for those sports,” Lombardi said. “Having your substitutes stand out in the hallway to try to participate, that’s not in anybody’s best interest.”

The PIAA wants 25% occupancy for facilities both indoor and out, meaning a stadium that seats 3,000 could allow 750 total individuals — athletes, coaches, spectators and more.

“I’m not sure this helps football enough,” Lombardi said of Wednesday’s decision. “We think there needs to be a little more consideration. But 250 is better than what we had. We’ll work through it.”

WPIAL football teams open their season Sept. 11. WPIAL executive director Amy Scheuneman said individual school districts will decide how those 250 persons are allocated at football games.

“Some schools may have smaller band contingents and allow more parents. Some may have bigger bands,” she said. “It could go in any number of directions. What it will help is those other sports (besides football) that now potentially can have parents.”

The original guidance from the governor said: “Sports-related activities at the PK-12 level are limited to student athletes, coaches, officials and staff only. Band and cheer are also allowed in a sports setting, but individuals involved in such activities count towards gathering limitations and must comply with face covering order and social distancing guidelines. Visitors and spectators are prohibited from attending in-person sports-related activities.”

The governor’s updated guidelines exclude no one.

“All individuals present at the facility at which such activities are held count towards gathering limitations and must comply with face covering order and social distancing guidelines.”

Soccer, cross country, field hockey, golf and girls tennis have room for spectators under the 250-person limit. Football presents a challenge, especially for larger schools with bigger rosters and bands.

“We’ll make every effort toward getting some fans,” said Burrell, but he recognized there are tough decisions ahead for Norwin and many other schools.

“If you can only allow 30, how do you determine which 30 are coming in? And if you say you’re going to sell tickets, they’re going to be here at 2 o’clock, and the 31st person is going to punch me in the face,” he said, jokingly.

At Clairton, one of the WPIAL’s smaller schools, athletic director Ted Ulmer anticipated having 100 fans in the stands — the largest outdoor gathering allowed under Allegheny County Health Department guidelines.

“We’re thrilled that the governor is taking this step to allow parents to come to the game,” Ulmer said. “Ultimately, that’s our main focus. We want to get parents in the door. We want parents to be able to see their kids play football.”

The ACHD last month released a joint statement with the WPIAL that said spectators were prohibited in Allegheny County. The WPIAL has asked for that stipulation to be removed, Scheuneman said.

“We’re going to be reviewing that,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said of the governor’s guidance. “Regardless of where it goes locally, we still want to make sure people follow the guidance. This isn’t just open up the stands and everybody come rushing back in.”

The governor’s change was made on the same day the state House approved a bill by state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, that gives individual school districts the authority to make decisions regarding sports, including spectator limits. House Bill 2787 passed 155-47 and heads next to the Senate.

Lombardi said he supports Reese’s bill.

“I think that bill has some merit,” Lombardi said. “Let each local community decide.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at

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