Noah Grube goes for a layup during a drill as Sam Fuller, left, watches during the Winthrop boys basketball team’s first practice of the season last Monday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The coronavirus pandemic forced changes to how basketball games will look this winter. It’s also forced schools to take a look at who will be allowed at those games.

With a focus on safety and an enforced limit on the amount of people who can gather in a room, schools have had to trim the list of people who would attend the games, with players, coaches and game officials taking up most of the spots.

“It’s basically having to re-think every little detail that goes into running a basketball game,” said RSU 38 superintendent Jay Charette, whose district includes Maranacook Community High School. “Pre-COVID, there were a lot of moving pieces that go there, but we didn’t have that layer to deal with. It was basically open the door, sell tickets, get people into the game.”

One of the parties on the fringe is the media, and schools have grappled with the question of whether to allow reporters, photographers and videographers into gymnasiums for games. Several schools in central Maine are allowing media into their gyms, including Cony, Mt. Ararat, Gardiner, Hall-Dale, Skowhegan and Madison. Others, such as Waterville and Winslow, have barred the media altogether. Furthermore, Richmond is allowing access to the media, provided members undergo a health screening at the door.

The contrasting policies provide a glimpse into how each school district is operating during the pandemic.

Maine Principals’ Association executive director Mike Burnham said the MPA isn’t directing schools on how to proceed. The state has limited the number of people to 50 for indoor events during the pandemic.

“The guidance around allowing media into the event really centers on the executive order of 50 or fewer people,” Burnham said. “What that 50-person limit looks like is a local decision.”

Winslow athletic director Jim Bourgoin posted a letter on the school’s website elaborating on the school’s decision to deny media entry.

“We will not be allowing any spectators at our home or away games,” the letter reads. “In fact, no one will be allowed in the gym besides players, officials and necessary workers. Workers will be school employees so that we can continue to limit outsiders access to the school building.”

Waterville athletic director Heidi Bernier said she had hoped to allow media into their athletic events, but that ultimately the decision was made to restrict access.

Players’ chairs are sanitized before a basketball game between Cony and Mt. Ararat on Monday at Cony High School in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Most schools in the area are permitting media. Schools on that list include Cony, Maranacook, Hall-Dale, Winthrop, Monmouth, Gardiner, Skowhegan, Richmond and Madison.

“We want everyone in the gym to feel comfortable, and I also want to feel comfortable that all guidelines will be followed at all times,” Richmond athletic director Jonathan Spear said.

Added Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton: “We’re certainly concerned about people coming from outside the bubble, but we know the situation, we know the times, we know the people coming in. We know we can bring them in safely and keep them socially distanced from students, we know they’re following the protocols.”

Stoneton said the opportunity for Winthrop athletes to get recognition for their athletic success makes the media necessary.

“It’s good for our students to get some form of normalcy, as well as some exposure that they’re being successful,” he said. “It’s normalcy for students to be part of a season, to pick up the paper or see something online where they’re part of something that’s a group effort that’s celebrated in a public forum.”

Mt Ararat athletic director Geoff Godo agreed.

“Myself and our administration agreed that it was important to allow limited media access so that our teams and kids can continue to be promoted and visible to our communities,” he said. “At a time when we are forced to scale so many things back, I think our kids need to know they are getting some of the publicity, ink, and camera time that they usually get. I believe it helps try to normalize the current situation.”

Skowhegan athletic director Jon Christopher said his school is setting aside two spots in the 50-person limit for print media each game.

“We were told by the MPA and the state agencies that no fans would be allowed at indoor events during the winter season, so there was very little conversation about this other than how do we do a good quality live stream so that parents and fans can watch the events. When you add in the 50-person limit, it makes it very difficult to allow fans anyway,” Christopher said.  “We will be staging the away teams who aren’t competing in the current game in our cafeteria where they can watch the live stream from there on a big projection screen.”

Official Rick Nolan rubs his hands in a mostly empty stadium at Cony High School before a game between Cony and Mt. Ararat on Monday in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Some schools have gone back and forth with their decisions. Mount View initially disallowed media at games, then on Tuesday opted to allow media after a discussion between superintendent Charles Brown and principal Zach Freeman. Maranacook was a no at first, but Charette and athletic director Brant Remington decided to allow media earlier this week.

“Our original thinking (was) ‘Let’s prioritize first, and if we’re letting anyone in, that parents kind of get first dibs,’ ” Charette said. “(But) we did talk about, well, there are people that aren’t going to come to the game, and this is a way to publicize how our student-athletes are doing.”

Erskine Academy athletic director Chuck Karter said media access would be a game-by-game decision based on anticipated attendance numbers, which can swell if schools are bringing both JV and varsity teams.

“I’ll be right at 50 just about every night. It will be a game-time decision,” he said. “We’re trying to coordinate with other schools what our numbers are going to be going into the game, so we can make allowances for things like this.”

In Jackman, Forest Hills home games are typically a community event. Athletic director and boys basketball coach Anthony Amero said a livestream of home games is being set up so fans in Jackman and Moose River who normally would attend games can follow the Tigers. The gym is small, Amero said, and allowing both teams to  stay socially distant on the sidelines is a concern.

“Just spreading out the kids six feet apart is a challenge. (We’re) pretty much surrounding the court with chairs, as we pushed in bleachers to gain space,” Amero said.

Morning Sentinel staff writer Travis Lazarczyk and The Times Record staff writer Eli Canfield contributed to this story.


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