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Can't wait to watch high school football? Chances are you'll keep waiting

Interim Ohio Department of Health Director Lance Himes' new guidelines took effect just before midnight. For stadiums, the limit on spectators is the lesser of 1,500 or 15 percent of capacity. Sebring’s stadium has 1,600 seats, hence, no more than 240 fans will be permitted to attend a football game.
Boardman Stadium
Spartan Stadium in Boardman (Contributed photo)

The most surprising part of Ohio's new order governing sports during the COVID-19 pandemic is how few spectators will be able to watch.

Late Wednesday, Lance D. Himes, interim director of the Ohio Department of Health, signed the state’s updated guidelines order that took effect one minute before midnight.

That means scrimmages can begin today.

As expected, safety precautions to guard against the spread of coronavirus dominate the 12-page order released just before 6 p.m.

But hitting hardest is how few spectators will be permitted to watch games outdoors. Tuesday, Gov. Mike DeWine said spectators would be limited to parents and “close friends” of the athletes or performers (band or cheerleaders).

At some games, there may only be enough tickets for parents.

For stadiums, the limit on individuals gathered is the lesser of 1,500 or 15 percent of fixed seating capacity.

Take Sebring, one of the smallest schools in Mahoning County. Sebring’s football stadium has 1,600 permanent seats, according to Athletic Director Brian Clark. According to the new order, no more than 240 spectators will be permitted inside the stadium for a football game.

A stadium would have to have at least 10,000 seats for any game to have 1,500 spectators.

For indoor facilities, the maximum is the lesser of either 300 or 15 percent of the fixed seating capacity.

Spectators must wear face masks and must sit in their assigned seats. Family or household groups may sit together but remain socially distanced from other groups. The number of players sitting in confined spaces such as dugouts will be limited; players may use spectator seating to maintain distance.

They won’t be the only ones sporting face masks. Players must wear face coverings when not on the field or court of play. Separately, coaches and sporting officials are exempted from wearing face coverings when shouting directions to players or blowing whistles.

Sports participants who are not actively playing and spectators will be required to wear face masks, maintain 6 feet of distance between one another, wash or sanitize their hands as frequently as possible and refrain from shaking hands.

The new health order covers professional, collegiate, amateur, club and youth sports.

As for social distancing, a 6-foot space between athletes and performers is required. State and local law authorities will provide enforcement.

The new order eliminates the previous requirement calling for mandatory COVID-19 tests for players, coaches, athletic trainers and officials 72 hours before any contest.

Instead, those involved must undergo symptom assessments before any practice or game.

The order says anyone experiencing symptoms (fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches) should stay home.

As outlined in previous health orders, coaches, players, officials or others who had close or direct physical contact with a known infected person must self-quarantine for 14 days following exposure and communicate with their local health department and help with contact tracing efforts.

If cooperation is lacking in contact tracing, the health department can require the entire team to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Those who test positive for coronavirus, with or without symptoms, cannot return to sports activities until cleared by a medical exam. That exam must include an assessment of the player's risk for heart complications during high-intensity exercise, due to the potential of myocarditis occurring in COVID-19 patients.

Anyone contracting coronavirus cannot return to sports activities until a documented medical exam clears them.

There is to be no congregating after a practice or game.

The guideline warns at-risk parents and grandparents to consider staying home because of the high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The list of at-risk conditions in the order includes pregnancy, chronic lung disease, severe asthma, serious heart conditions, immunocompromised, severe obesity, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

Coaches must educate players on how to prevent coronavirus spread using materials from the Ohio Department of Health.

Among the other highlights of the order:

  • If possible, HVAC systems for indoor arenas should be modified to draw in and circulate more outside air. Fire doors and loading doors should be opened to allow for more ventilation.
  • Sports or athletic venues may submit their own safety plan to the state and local health department for review, including written justification for changes to the plan.
  • Each sports venue must designate, in writing, a compliance officer who is responsible for ensuring the guidelines are being followed during events. That person is expected to be in contact with the local health department and authorities. The order also recommends ushers monitor and encourage social distancing among spectators.
  • Violating the order constitutes a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $750 fine or up to 90 days in jail.
  • Teams are allowed to compete against only one single team in a 24-hour period, though multiple games between those same two teams are permitted.
  • The order recommends teams, schools and clubs establish a partnership with a local health care provider to help accelerate virus testing if needed.

— Reporter Justin Dennis contributed to this story.

You can read the full order below. To view a full-size version, click the icon in the upper-right: