Hoosier Hysteria now can begin, as fans of Wayne County high school sports will have a chance to attend games and meets as sectionals approach.
Local high school gyms and sports venues are now allowed to fill 25 percent of their seating capacity as long as COVID cases continue decreasing from their recent surge.
Those seats will accommodate cheerleaders and spirit bands, who have had to be sidelined during the indoor winter sports season.
The increased spectator capacity was announced Friday in a letter signed by the superintendents of the county’s five local public high schools (Centerville, Hagerstown, Lincoln, Northeastern and Richmond).
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced earlier in the week that gathering restrictions would be changed to reflect the state’s COVID data trending in the right direction.
Although Wayne County remained in the orange level as it continues to add new COVID cases, its positivity rate on tests has been decreasing in recent weeks, providing some cautious optimism for health officials.
Wayne County Health Department indicated it would support a relaxation of the county’s current guidelines restricting attendance to two relatives per student, and removing the ban on cheerleaders and bands.
The superintendents said they will work to ensure cheerleaders and musicians “have the opportunity to perform in a safe manner while allowing as many people into our gymnasiums as permitted.”
They also noted that if safety requirements do not allow for the full 25 percent to be in the room, the number of permitted occupants will be adjusted to ensure staff, students and crowds are safe.
“The Wayne County schools appreciate the opportunity to allow these students to attend our games,” the letter said about the bands and cheerleaders. “The young men and ladies in these programs have continued working hard throughout this pandemic and will finally have the opportunity to be a part of the athletic events.”
“We’re always excited to be able to let more students participate in extra-curricular activities,” Western Wayne Schools Superintendent George Philhower said. “And it’s great that our players will be able to play in front of more fans!”
Nettle Creek Superintendent Kyle Barrentine agreed.
“That was good news,” he said. “It’s a great step.”
However, everyone in attendance needs to continue to wear their masks, social distance and wash their hands and not get lazy, Barrentine said, just because the restrictions have been decreased.
Lis Deitsch, whose son Ben plays basketball for Northeastern, said her family is very excited that the rules are changing.
“It has been eerily quiet during the games and having a bigger crowd (still socially distanced and masked) will be great,” Deitsch said. “These boys have worked hard and deserve a crowd. It will be so nice to have the band and cheerleaders there as well – they’ve been putting in practice time too and we’re glad they get to perform.”
Northeastern school board president Keith Webster also was pleased by the announcement.
“I hope we’re turning the corner,” said Webster, who also is a funeral director.
Last fall, many people questioned whether students would be diligent about wearing their masks, social distancing, washing their hands and cleaning/sanitizing their workspaces at school.
“Kids want to be in school,” Webster said. “They did whatever it took to stay in school. They were their own mask police. They really set the example.”
Distribution of the remaining tickets will be controlled by each school’s administrators, and might vary depending on the numbers of people coming from the visiting teams and capacities of each gymnasium.
Additional specific details will be provided by each school as they become available.
Wayne County Health Officer Dr. David Jetmore offered some caution regarded the relaxed attendance restrictions on Friday’s episode of “Ask the Doctors” on Whitewater Community Television.
Jetmore said sports fans must continue masking and social distancing to help make this opportunity remain possible.
“The number of people in United States that is fully vaccinated is just a little over 1 percent, so it’s important that people not get too complacent when they see these numbers,” he said.
Jetmore wants to see Wayne County soon get its number of COVID cases below 200 per 100,000 residents, making the county a candidate for an even better yellow designation.
Returning to yellow, or the best category, blue, would mean the county could begin having even larger gatherings.
“Our behaviors cause these numbers to come down,” Jetmore said. “Our masking and distancing have caused these numbers to fall, and not the vaccine.”
He wanted to correct what he believes is an incorrect impression he’s heard in the community that credits the vaccine rollout for a decrease in COVID cases.
The vaccine is currently available to those 65 and older, healthcare workers and first responders. Many of those recipients have only had their first of two doses of the vaccine, so they are not fully immunized.
“Eventually that will happen, but we just haven’t reached that level yet,” Jetmore said.
Jetmore is hopeful that some gatherings may resume in early to mid-summer, but he said that might be too optimistic of a projection.
Dr. Thomas Huth, vice president of medical affairs for Reid Health, stressed that Wayne County must continue following public health recommendations to minimize new COVID cases.
He wasn’t quite as optimistic as Jetmore about the potential for larger indoor events, saying there are a lot of unknowns. His concerns include whether there will be more waves in cases, will any variations in the virus making it more contagious cause more waves, and will enough people be vaccinated before those waves begin.
“I’m not ready to think we’ll be back to pre-March 2020 life by this summer,” Huth said. “It would be nice, but I’m not counting on it.”
Rachel Sheeley contributed to this story.