COLUMN: Schools should allow away fans if coronavirus situation keeps improving

RYAN MCBRIDE/Staff photoThe sun sets over Newburyport High School's James T. Stehlin Field during Thanksgiving week this past fall. This weekend the belated Fall 2 season is set to begin, and with coronavirus cases on the decline across the region, there is finally hope that as the season goes along we may finally start seeing life get back closer to normal.

It was exactly one year ago today that the severity of the coronavirus pandemic dawned on American society.

After days of increasingly dire headlines, the situation came to a head on March 11, 2020. That was the day when Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 — and actor Tom Hanks as well — and by the end of the night the NBA announced it had suspended its season. The dominos rapidly started falling from there.

It’s been a long and hard year since then. Virtually the entire spring sports landscape was wiped out, and once sports did finally resume over the summer they were radically changed. No fans, safety protocols, game modifications, bubbles, COVID pauses and a looming sense of anxiety that any team’s season could be upended in an instant.

But the good news is things are finally starting to look up.

Tomorrow Massachusetts high schools will kick off the unprecedented Fall 2 football season, and if forecasts are right we’re looking at unseasonably warm temperatures at kickoff. Coronavirus case numbers are down significantly from the winter and the vaccine rollout has continued picking up steam. There is good reason to believe that in the coming months things might finally go back to something resembling normal.

For many in the local community, normal can’t possibly come soon enough. That’s clearly evident given the viral success of a petition by Cape Ann League parents urging schools to allow away fans at football games this Fall 2 season. More than 1,500 people have signed since Sunday, and even if many of those signatures are likely from outside the CAL’s footprint, the numbers speak to how powerfully the issue has resonated.

While the CAL does not have a formal league-wide policy on fans for Fall 2 and there has been no vote by superintendents or athletic directors as the petition suggests, most of the league’s schools do plan on starting the season allowing only a limited number of home fans for football games.

If those policies persist, that would be a problem for teams like Pentucket, which is currently without a home stadium due to ongoing construction at the school. 

Pentucket is scheduled to play five games this season, all on the road, and a sizable number of fans have expressed worry they may be shut out of attending games entirely. Hamilton-Wenham fans are in a similar boat, with only two home games currently on the schedule and questions about whether the Generals’ grass field will even be usable during the wet early-spring weeks.

In addition to public sentiment, the petitioners have at least one notable public health expert on their side as well.

Last month my colleague Bill Burt at The Eagle-Tribune reached out to Dr. David Hamer, a professor of Global Health and Medicine at the Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine. He is a board-certified specialist in infectious diseases and has also been reviewing plans to have spectators for the upcoming Major League Soccer and PGA Tour seasons.

During their conversation, Hamer told Burt that he supports limited numbers of fans being allowed to attend outdoor games.

“Fans should and could be allowed to attend games,” said Dr. Hamer. “Definitely not 100% capacity, but 25 or 40%? Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem, especially for outdoor sports where natural air currents disperse any potentially infectious aerosols.”

“I understand schools have been overly cautious, particularly months ago,” he added later. “But I believe fans can attend sporting events outside and have very, very low risk with the virus.”

The state is moving in that direction too, announcing that professional facilities like Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and TD Garden will be permitted to open at 12% capacity starting on March 22. Even at that limited capacity, that means thousands of fans will be able to attend Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins games this spring, and those people will obviously be coming from all over the region.

So where does that leave the local high schools?

I reached out to Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton, whose football team has the most at stake in this debate, for his thoughts. Thornton urged patience, saying the CAL athletic directors have good working relationships and understand the hardships each school is facing. While it’s unlikely a blanket “away fans will be allowed at all football games” policy will happen, he believes that as the weather gets warmer there will be more opportunities for fans to come to games. 

“In some regards we’re at the mercy of our opponents, but I’m optimistic that something could be worked out,” Thornton said. “Things are changing so fast.”

Whether or not away fans will be allowed won’t be entirely up to the athletic directors. The local superintendents, boards of health and other decision makers will play a large role in the process, and they are the ones who any petition would need to sway.

But after a year of unrelenting bad news, it does seem like better days are finally ahead. If things do keep trending upwards, the schools should respond accordingly.

Mac Cerullo can be reached by email at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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