COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — All Ohio high school sports can go forward this fall, with an option for sports like football or soccer to be delayed until the spring if schools wish, Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday in one of his most anticipated coronavirus-related announcements that came just days before the start of the school year.
The governor’s order — which takes effect Friday — prohibits spectators at events other than family members or individuals close to athletes, with final decisions on those people left up to schools. Similar limits are in place for family members of marching bands and drill teams.
“Our order provides the best guidance to play sports as safely as can be played in the era of COVID-19,” DeWine said.
DeWine said a decision on performing arts events, such as school plays, was coming this week, and hinted they would be allowed with precautions such as moving audiences farther back.
It will be up to schools to police the limits on attendance at sporting events, but the Ohio High School Athletic Association will send site monitors to games, and schools found in violation of the governor’s orders could forfeit games and face disqualification from further competition, said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.
Providing both students and coaches an incentive to keep playing by following protocols for limiting the spread of the coronavirus was one of the factors in allowing sports to proceed, said both DeWine and Husted, a former University of Dayton football player.
“Much like the sport you play, success of this opportunity lies with the execution of the game plan,” said Husted, who worked closely with the OHSAA in developing the plan. “Athletes, coaches and families must demonstrate the discipline to follow the rules so that they can protect themselves and teammates from the spread of the coronavirus.”
To drive home this point, DeWine brought in Dr. James Borchers, an Ohio State University sports medicine doctor and a member of the OSU football team in the early 1990s. Borchers said decisions on whether children should play rest on how a community is responding to the pandemic.
“You have to take into account what’s going in your local community, what’s going on in your more extended community,” Borchers said. “That’s why its so incumbent on all of us to do the best we can to prevent as much spread as possible.”
DeWine said a recent dip in reported coronavirus numbers also played a factor in his decision. Ohio’s daily reported case numbers have dropped in recent days, and are well below the seven-day average of slightly above 1,000 confirmed cases. However, the governor said rates are climbing now in several rural counties.
The governor also warned that he could still reverse himself and shut sports down if things go “off the rails” regarding coronavirus infection rates.
DeWine’s decision comes as practice is underway at some schools and suspended at others out of concerns over spreading the coronavirus.
Ohio’s largest district, Columbus, halted school sports and extracurricular activities as of Friday, citing the advice of local health officials and concerns about the continued spread of the coronavirus in the area.
Other districts, such as Upper Arlington in suburban Columbus, are allowing students in contact sports such as football to work out in small groups or “pods.”
Dozens of states nationwide have delayed fall sports, and at least 15 won’t play high school football this autumn, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.