Gov. Northam deflects calls to increase fans allowed at high school sports

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – After months of anticipation, Friday night football is finally back. Now, many are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to increase the number of fans allowed at high school sports.

Gov. Northam’s updated executive order, which took effect on Monday, classifies high school sports as “recreational.” It means indoor games are subject to a cap of 25 spectators. Outdoor games can have 250 spectators maximum, or 30 percent of the facility’s total occupancy, whichever is less. It comes as similar sports venues in Virginia are now allowed to have up to 1,000 people in the stands.

Billy Haun, executive director of the Virginia High School League, says the one-size-fits-all spectator cap should be removed, leaving only a percentage of total occupancy.

Haun said they have been lobbying Northam’s Administration since mid-January but, so far, the push has been unsuccessful.

“We’re not asking to fill these venues up but we do feel we have the capacity to do more than what is being allowed and we feel like we can do it safely,” Haun said.

Haun said 293 of the 310 total outdoor high school stadiums they represent in Virginia are at less than 17 percent seating capacity under the 250-spectator cap. Of 315 total gyms, he said 302 of them are at less than 5 percent capacity under the 25-spectator standard.

The lack of fans has emotional and financial implications, according to Haun.

“Many high school athletic budgets are built off of gate receipts and most of them come from basketball and football,” Haun said.

Northam’s refusal to adjust restrictions on high school sports has caused one Southwest Virginia school district to leave the state to skirt the rules.

Bristol City Schools decided to move their games just over the border to Tennessee, where Superintendent Keith Perrigan says they’re allowed to host 2,000 people. Perrigan said they sought approval from the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department Education but they didn’t hear back.

“The restrictions are having the exact opposite effect of what the administration is trying to accomplish,” Perrigan said. “By having unreasonable and inconsistent expectations put out on high schools across the commonwealth, it is actually causing more rebellion and more creative thinking to find ways to get around that.”

Perrigan said the move was the only way to allow cheerleaders and band members to attend without unfairly limiting access for family members. He said Northam’s executive order currently classifies these students as spectators–rather than part of the event–which means they’re counted towards the 250-person limit.

Perrigan said the “spectator” classification underpinned discussion of a Title IX lawsuit against the state, as Bristol leaders felt it presented barriers to equal athletic participation. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.

Ultimately, Perrigan said the school board backed away from litigation when an easier solution emerged.

“It’s a shame that our students have to go across the state line to be recognized but unfortunately that’s currently the climate that we live in in Virginia,” Perrigan said.

At Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, cheerleader Kate Manico said her team is allowed to attend home games but, because they’re considered spectators, their parents were only allowed to come for Senior Day.

“I love just being there, being present, being able to cheer and that’s really all I wanted for my senior season…but I do wish my parents could come to more games,” Manico said.

These concerns caught the attention of several state lawmakers, who wrote a letter to the governor on February 16th asking him to edit his executive order.

Responding to the criticism during a tour of Louisa County High School on Thursday, Gov. Northam said, “As a father of a daughter who was a cheerleader, I feel very strongly that they aren’t just spectators.”

Northam didn’t commit to any immediate changes on Thursday and, as of Friday afternoon, he had not updated his executive order.

All of this comes as top health officials are warning states not to ease coronavirus restrictions.

“As soon as we can we want to get back to normal so we’re just doing it in a step-wise fashion,” Northam told 8News. “We have been following the science and the data. We want to do this safely and we have a plan.”

At his most recent press conference, Northam said–if coronavirus cases continue to trend in the right direction–he plans to remove the spectator cap on outdoor sports venues and replace it with an occupancy percentage. He said that could happen as early as April.

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