Fans follow the action as Edward Little’s Ava Braunscheidel and Lewiston’s Bailee St. Hilaire trip while going after the ball during a girls soccer game in Auburn last October. High school sports might be played without fans this fall to comply with state gathering guidelines. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The Maine Principals’ Association announcement Thursday that fall high school sports could begin on Sept. 8, pending state agencies’ and local school boards’ approval, was encouraging for athletes, coaches and administrators, but it came with chilling news for fans.

“It’s going to be very hard to have fans at games with some of the guidelines that are in place,” Lewiston High School athletic director Jason Fuller said.

MPA officials said Thursday that they do not intend to allow schools to deviate from Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order that limits gathering sizes to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

On Friday, the MPA released its Sports Medicine Committee’s guidelines for fall sports, portions of which address spectators for each sport and emphasize the need for strict compliance with the governor’s order, regardless of the sport.

Under the guidelines, all athletes, coaches, officials, support staff (such as athletic trainers or scoreboard operators), sideline personnel (such as ball boys and chain gangs), will be included in the head count before spectators are even involved.

“It’s very clear that it includes everybody,” MPA executive director Mike Burnham said Thursday.

The guidelines state that if the venue cannot comply with the gathering limit while also complying with 3- to 6-foot distancing requirements between people, “occupancy in that space will be limited to allow for such compliance.”

The guidelines also state that “face coverings should always be worn by coaches, staff and spectators.”

All of the guidelines are still subject to state review, but Burnham noted the MPA will be issuing more detailed measures regarding fans as the season approaches.

“We will look at the governor’s order on mass gatherings and we will develop a similar set of guidelines to address the spectator issue,” Burnham said. “We know that there are going to be limitations. We will work very closely with the (Maine Interscholastic) Athletic Administrators Association to develop these, but a lot of them are going to be very specific to the venues in which these games are being played.”

Edward Little athletic director Todd Sampson said he is awaiting more clarification from the MPA on spectators, but acknowledged that they could be squeezed out this fall, particularly in sports with large rosters.

“It would be difficult to have any (spectators) at a football game,” he said.

Courtney Larson, a senior field hockey player for Edward Little, said it will be more difficult for some athletes to accept not having fans if that means families won’t be able to attend.

“Having parents there and family there is really important for some girls more than others, but especially for seniors,” she said.

Keeping fans away from fields located on high school campuses may be easier than those located off-campus or surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Coaches and athletes wonder if they might be put in the awkward position of discouraging fans from coming to games.

“It’s going to be hard to tell kids not to show up for a high school football game,” Edward Little football coach Dave Sterling said.

One alternative many schools, including Edward Little and Lewiston, are already exploring is streaming of games over the internet.

Streaming games is not new to Maine high school sports. Some schools already stream their games live and/or on demand via platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, and since 2014, the NFHS has paid the MPA for exclusive rights to stream playoffs in numerous sports to subscribers.

Watching games online may fill the void for fans and athletes in some ways but won’t be an adequate substitute for some of the rituals that both groups look forward to each season.

Larson said she and her senior teammates are particularly concerned about the traditional senior day, where athletes and their parents are typically recognized in a pregame ceremony.

Most schools hold the ceremony before the final regular season home game for each sport. Given the tenuous nature of the season being completed due to the coronavirus, senior athletes worry about that they may not make it to that important day.

“We’ve been talking about moving it up,” Larson said.

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