More fans will be permitted to attend school sporting events in Tennessee starting next week.
Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday afternoon that Executive Order No. 74 will be suspended effective Monday, Feb. 1. That order, originally issued on Dec. 20, limited attendance at winter sports contests to game personnel, coaches, school administrators, media, scouts, first responders and immediate family members of participating athletes. It was expanded last week to include grandparents, teachers and school staff and was scheduled to run through Feb. 27.
Lee cited “rapidly” improving COVID-19 numbers as the reason behind the change. Tennessee was averaging 128.1 new daily cases per 100,000 people in mid-December, but that has since fallen to 45 cases per 100,000 people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When case counts were at their highest, we placed temporary, targeted restrictions on indoor school sporting events,” Lee said in a statement. “The data now reflects rapidly falling numbers and because of that data, we are ending the recent additional restrictions around who can participate in or attend indoor school sporting events.
“I encourage Tennesseans to keep up their responsible personal choices as we work towards a COVID-free Tennessee.”
Lee’s move means high school sporting events will again be open to the general public. But even though there is no longer a statewide attendance policy, TSSAA guidance and local school district rules remain in place.
TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress said in a statement that the organization’s policies requiring masks, temperature checks and social distancing are still the same. TSSAA member schools are also "encouraged" to limit fan attendance to a number that allows for adequate spacing.
“We’re proud that our member schools have been taking steps to follow the Governor’s orders and limit the spread of the virus,” Childress said. “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.”
Brentwood Academy boys basketball coach Matt Hoppe acknowledged that his team has missed its fans, especially the student section. Cheerleaders and students have not been allowed at games for the past six weeks.
“There are so many great student sections and communities that come around schools in this area and across the state,” Hoppe said. “We’re probably like everyone else in that we’re excited that our fans get to come back in the gym.”
Houston boys basketball coach Mike Miller agreed with Hoppe and said he’s all for fans returning as long as the crowds can be safely managed. Nearly 9,500 state residents have died of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic last year, according to the Tennessee Dept. of Health.
“The stuff we’re dealing with (surrounding) coronavirus, it’s obviously something really serious,” Miller said. “As long as we (host games) safely, I think it’s a great idea. This is an experience that these kids will never get back.”