By JESSE SMITHEY
Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday that recent attendance restrictions for high school winter sporting events will be lifted beginning Monday, Feb. 1, and that was news that caught many in the high school sports landscape off guard.
The lack of student sections, cheerleaders, dance teams, pep bands and the general fan base at games has been deafening over the last six weeks.
But that will all change starting Monday.
Sevier County athletics director Bryan Atchley said he “had no clue” Lee was making or announcing this decision Thursday to lift the restrictions prompted by Executive Orders 70 and 74, respectively, in December and mid-January. He saw the news via social media Thursday afternoon.
“I was totally caught off guard. I was wishful (it might happen). I was hopeful for our kids, to be able to get students back in the gym,” said Atchley. “I’m sure there are a lot of schools like we are who have a lot of fans who don’t have kids on the teams but still want to come and support our school.”
Alcoa athletics director Josh Stephens was caught by surprise, as well.
But Gov. Lee’s video announcement Thursday stated that Covid-19 cases had gone down enough to allow for the change.
“I was not surprised when he extended his order (back in mid-January),” said Stephens. “And, really, I was just hoping it wasn’t extended again.”
Lee signed off on Executive Order 70 in December to help combat rising Covid-19 cases in the state, and that order restricted attendance at high school sporting events.
Under that EO 70, only players, coaches, team staff, school administrators, game administrators, game officials, first responders, media and immediate family members/legal guards could attend contests from Dec. 21, 2020, until Jan. 19, 2021.
Hours before EO 70 was set to expire on Jan. 19, Lee extended the restrictions via Executive Order 74 from Jan. 20 through Feb. 27; however, he did soften the restrictions to allow grandparents and school faculty.
But under EO 70 and 74, no fans, no cheerleaders, no dance teams.
And that caused quite the social media backlash, most of which was directed at Lee and the TSSAA.
Those waters began calming following Lee’s announcement Thursday.
The Covid-19 regulations and rule modifications set forth by the TSSAA Board of Control will still be in effect. Translation: masks, temperature checks, social distancing, reduced capacity and the like are all still very much required.
“We’re proud that our member schools have been taking steps to follow the Governor’s orders and limit the spread of the virus,” said TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress in a press release Thursday afternoon.
“It is vitally important that we continue to be smart and safe in our activities, wear a mask, wash our hands and practice social distancing at every athletic contest.”
Athletics programs have had to watch every penny during the 2020-21 school year, as reduced capacity regulations have affected their bottom lines and budgeted dollars. When EO 70 and 74 were enacted, those financial losses only escalated.
Having more in attendance will help negate losses and help pay officials, even if most basketball teams and wrestling teams are nearing the ends of their seasons.
More than anything, though, helping some regain a sense of normalcy and social interaction will be good for the soul.
“I know some of our students are struggling with not being in school, not only educationally but mentally. Not being able to be at games is a struggle for high school students, just socially,” said Stephens. “As far as I’m concerned, financially, it’s been a burden. It’ll help us, even if it’s just going to be two games. We have just two home games left.
“But it’s good news for our kids, not only our athletes but their classmates.”
TN’s numbers continue to rapidly improve with almost a 60% decline in cases & nearly a 40% decline in hospitalizations because of the efforts of Tennesseans. Because of that data, we are ending the recent restrictions around who can participate in or attend school sporting events pic.twitter.com/YtfJvlfGYP
— Gov. Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) January 28, 2021