A bill to allow more fans at high school sporting events has life despite decision by Gov. Roy Cooper to ease attendance restrictions

Kristy Smith (r)

State Republicans continued to push Wednesday to more fully reopen the state as North Carolina’s rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to fall.

The latest effort came in the form of Senate Bill 116, which would allow more spectators to attend high school outdoor sporting events.

The bill received bipartisan support in a Senate Standing Committee on Education and Higher Education meeting.

If approved, public and nonpublic high schools could allow up to 40% of approved capacity into stadiums, parks, fields or ball courts.

The bill’s supporters got most of what they wanted Wednesday during Gov. Roy Cooper’s afternoon news conference.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The governor agreed to ease several restrictions, including one that limited attendance at outdoor sporting events to 100 people and to 25 people for indoor sporting events.

Cooper’s new Executive Order No. 195 allow attendance at outdoor sporting events to reach 30% capacity of capacity. Indoor events can have the lesser of 250 people or 30% capacity. Indoor arenas with more than 5,000 seats can have 50% of capacity.

“Easing these restrictions will only work if we keep protecting ourselves and others from this deadly virus,” Cooper said. “The order and our own common sense say that health and safety protocols must remain in place.”

Sen. Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican and one of SB 116’s primary sponsors, said the governor’s action did not go far enough.

“I appreciate the governor’s move today [Wednesday], which will provide some immediate relief,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t make much sense to me to allow 50% capacity inside restaurants, where it’s physically impossible to always wear a mask, and allow only 30% capacity at wide open outdoor sports venues. Unless I hear a compelling reason for that difference, I plan to move forward with my bill.”

The bill does not count athletes, school employees, band members or other entertainers or school support staff among spectators that would be allowed under the proposed 40% capacity rule.

SB 116 supporters say the bill is especially important for parents of seniors, many of whom stand to miss their children’s final performances.

Kristy Smith told lawmakers that she won’t be able to attend her son’s away football game Thursday. Only fans of the home team can attend games because of capacity restrictions.

“There’s going to be no pictures,” said Smith, an Alamance  County parent. “There will be no memories captured for me or my son in a season he’s worked hard for since he was six. Among other things he’s been denied as the high school senior, this may be the most disappointing.”

Cooper’s order takes effect Friday. That’s too late for Smith, even if school athletic directors decide to allow the fans of opposing teams to attend games starting Friday.

Smith is disappointed that the order won’t cover the Thursday game. She’s excited, however, about possibly attending future away games.

“It’s a little heartbreaking but I’m encouraged,” she told Policy Watch.

Smith argued that it’s unfair that she can’t attend he son’s game but can eat in restaurants alongside unmasked dinners or sit near unmasked movie-goers.

“As a mother, I respectfully request that you take a moment to consider the impact of denying parents and guardians the right to enjoy the fleeting moments of our children’s lives that have been so greatly impacted and robbed of so much by this virus,” Smith said.

Meanwhile,  Johnson complained that the definition of healthy has erroneously become the “absence” of COVID-19.

“That is the furthest thing from the truth,” Johnson said. “Living in a house that has two teenage boys, I see firsthand that there is a lot more to being healthy than just not having COVID.”

He said the physical, mental and social well-being of children are being ignored amid efforts to protect them from the coronavirus.

Committee Democrats supported the bill but did ask whether it was drafted in coordination with the N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

Johnson said he had not consulted with NCHSAA. But he said he hasn’t heard about any opposition to the bill coming from the organization that oversees high school athletics in North Carolina.

Johnson said he didn’t consult with NCDHSS, either. Instead, he relied on information about COVID-19 transmission that’s available to the public.

He said it’s reasonable to assume that attending an outdoor sporting event at 40% capacity is safer than eating in a restaurant at 50% capacity where patrons are potentially transmitting the virus while “chewing, laughing, spitting, [or] coughing.”

Johnson noted a recent report about the NFL season, which found that teams safely played games before fans in stadiums with occupancy restrictions in place.

“Throughout the entire NFL season, with many of the venues being open, not including the Carolina Panthers, keep that in mind when we’re doing budgeting, the number of revenue and the amount of revenue that we’ve lost for a lot of important projects, during the entire NFL season there were a total of zero super spreader events related to these outdoor venues,” Johnson said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, supports athletic competition, but said the state must move cautiously due to new variants of the coronavirus and the reluctance of some people to wear masks.

“I want us to pay attention to that,” Robinson said. “We want to continue to get this [infection] rate down in North Carolina so people can return fully to regular activities.”

Republicans have wasted little time introducing bills to nudge Cooper toward easing restrictions so that the state can more quickly resume business as usual.

The more important and most controversial of the bill is Senate Bill 37, that would require all school districts to provide an option for in-person instruction.

Republicans approved the bill along with a handful of Democrats.

Cooper is expected to veto the bill although he has “strongly” encouraged districts to reopen for in person instruction. He contends SB 37  doesn’t require districts to follow state and federal safety guidance and strips them of the flexibility needed to respond to emergencies.

Cooper doubled down on that position when asked about the bill Wednesday. He said he would sign legislation requiring in person instruction if lawmakers addressed his two concerns.

The governor has until Saturday to veto the bill. If he does nothing, it will become law.

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