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Pa. releases new guidance on attendance limits

HARRISBURG — Just when parents and fans of school sports thought they had been given an all-clear to allow as many of people who wanted to attend a game to go, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has issued new guidance that recommends school districts stick with the current limits.

A memo that went out to school districts on Friday from the education department asks schools to voluntarily follow the state’s earlier guidance: attendance limits of 250 for outdoor games and 25 for indoor games.

The education department’s message states the federal court ruling issued this week that found Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration’s limits on gatherings to be unconstitutional is not “a blanket end to the mitigation orders put in place to protect residents of the commonwealth from the deadly COVID-19.”

The department urges districts to “stay the course to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities” while awaiting the court to rule on the stay request to put the judge’s ruling on hold while an appeal makes its way through the court system.

The administration announced on Sept. 2 rules that placed the attendance limits for indoor games at 25 and outdoor contests at 250.

Those rules said everyone in attendance, including but not limited to players, coaches, event staff, officials, media members, along with fans and family members, count against the venue’s capacity limit, which cannot exceed 50 percent of “occupancy otherwise permitted by law.” It left it up to individual schools to figure out how to comply with those limits.

Some parents objected, saying those limits would prevent any family members, or any spectators, from attending games.

The letter that went out to districts Friday said, “You are likely aware that on Monday a federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a decision striking down some of the commonwealth’s COVID-related orders. The ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March, which were later suspended, as well as the 25-person indoor and 250-person outdoor gathering limitations.

“The actions taken by the Wolf Administration were mirrored by governors across the country and saved and continue to save lives. As such, the Wolf Administration has applied for a stay of the order and will appeal this decision. Nevertheless, we understand that you may be wondering how this development might impact your operations in the intervening time until the litigation comes to a resolution.

“The ruling was not a blanket end to the mitigation orders put in place to protect residents of the commonwealth from the deadly COVID-19 virus and we must all stay the course to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. Indeed, all other orders of the governor and Secretary of Health remain in effect, including the order on face coverings.

“School entities remain responsible for enforcing the face covering order and requiring social distancing at school and at all school events, including school sporting events. The administration encourages schools to voluntarily enforce the 25- person indoor and 250-person outdoor gathering limitation while all of us wait for the court to rule on the stay request.

“We trust that school leaders understand the critical importance of maintaining the health and safety of our school communities, and further trust that they will continue to maintain strong social distancing and face covering policies necessary to contain and mitigate this virus.”

In his ruling this week, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV found the Wolf Administration’s limits on social gatherings to be a violation of “the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment.”

The PIAA and various athletic directors, including Cumberland Valley’s Mike Craig, said they could support a 25% capacity limit of a venue.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan-backed bill sits on Wolf’s desk that would allow local school officials to not only have the exclusive authority to decide in 2020-21 whether to hold interscholastic sports and other activities but also how many people could attend them. Wolf has said he plans to veto the bill citing potential public health risks it could pose. He has until Monday to act.

State lawmakers held a news conference on Wednesday urging him to change his mind, saying students’ ability to participate in extracurricular activities is part of the high school experience and allowing parents and family members, along with others, to attend helps to make the experience more memorable for the participants.

In a related matter, state Sens. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster County, and Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, announced on Thursday plans to introduce a bill that would ensure recreational leagues and other non-school-related sports also do not have to abide by the administration’s total occupancy limits of 25 people for indoor events and 250 for outdoor games.

“Recreational leagues throughout the state proved over the summer that sporting events can be held safely if we follow the proper steps to avoid COVID-19,” Martin said. Langerholc added, “Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently said these decisions can be made safely by local officials. this bill would give the decision-making power back to the people who know our communities best.”

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