A year ago, when Connor Woodward ran onto the basketball court for pregame warm-ups at Wells High, he had an empty feeling. Like the empty stands.

“It was kind of like you were on your own,” said Woodward, now a senior point guard for the Warriors.

Fans were not allowed to attend any high school athletic events last winter because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year, for the most part, they’re back in the stands. And when Woodward walked out for warm-ups before Wells’ home opener, he noticed.

“It definitely was thrilling,” he said. “I had butterflies, for sure. I was nervous. There was a lot of energy there, and that made me excited to play.”

Fans certainly bring an added dimension to high school games again – the chants and cheers, the cries at officials, the clapping, the roar of a good play. But they also have to wade through a variety of protocols in order to attend.

Without a blanket policy from state officials or the Maine Principals’ Association, school districts have had to establish their own guidelines. Some are limiting gym capacity, in some cases restricting the number of fans with visiting teams. Some are selling all tickets online, others only at the door. Few are offering concessions.

In the case of indoor track, no fans are being allowed for Southwestern Maine Activities Association, Western Maine Conference and Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference meets at the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College. League officials did that to limit potential exposure to COVID-19, but also because of the requirement by both Bowdoin and the University of Maine System that anyone entering the facilities show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. SMAA officials called that “an overwhelming task” in their release announcing the ban.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has said that the threat of coronavirus transmission is greater indoors than outside. As a result, the CDC has also recommended that masks be worn indoors in all public places in areas of substantial or high transmission. That will be the case at high school gyms throughout southern Maine this season.

Fans take in the action at a boys’ basketball game between Falmouth and Marshwood at Falmouth High on Friday night.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And fans seem all right with that.

“I think we’ve become so accustomed to it now,” said Keith Gosselin, whose daughter Hannah is a senior guard on the Biddeford High girls’ basketball  team. “I’m getting the feeling that masks are going to be part of our lives for a while.”

But other guidelines differ and many schools have sent out messages to the parents of players listing the guidelines at each gym.

“It can be difficult to adjust to all of the rules,” said Brunswick athletic director Aaron Watson. “Speaking to all the KVAC rules, we’re all in this for the kids. We’re trying to provide a great opportunity for the kids and a safe experience for the kids. If we can get the parents to see the games live, we want that too.”

A year ago, parents and fans were only able to watch the games on livestreams. It was unsatisfying to many.

“It was tough,” said Dean Ramsdell, whose daughter Grace is a senior basketball player at Wells. “All you were doing is yelling at the TV screen. We certainly appreciated the fact that we could watch online, but it’s much more exciting and you feel more like a part of the game being there in person.”

Spectators watch the action during a girls’ basketball game between Yarmouth and Lake Region at Yarmouth High on Saturday.

Keith and Tina Gosselin had missed only a handful of their daughter Hannah’s games over her career since she was 7 or 8. Last year, said Keith Gosselin, “it was really weird for us” watching livestreams.

He’s glad they’re back in the stands – “It seems relatively normal, for the most part,” he said – as is Hannah.

“It’s really amazing,” she said. “You wouldn’t think that having everyone there cheering you on would make a difference, but it does. It just makes you play harder.”

Determining how many fans can attend games – and who they might be – is where schools differ most.

The majority of schools are opening their gyms to all fans, though there are some in central Maine that are only allowing home fans, such as most of the Mountain Valley Conference. Cony High in Augusta, in the KVAC, is among them as well.

Athletic Director Jon Millett said the reasoning is simple: “We’re trying to keep things inside our own community.”

Team members are allowed a list of four fans per game. Room is also made for any long-time Cony fans who want to attend. They just have to contact Millett.

Teams using the Don Richards Community Pool at Cape Elizabeth High will be limited to one parent for each swimmer or diver per meet.

The Yarmouth High student section cheers on its girls’ basketball team during a game against Lake Region on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some schools are limiting their stands to 50 percent capacity, such as Biddeford, which is capping attendance at 425 fans. The cap also extends to the Biddeford Ice Arena, home of the school’s hockey teams. Others are setting ticket limits for home and away team members.

At Freeport High, for example, each member of the home team can have six spectators attend while members of the visiting team can have four. Freeport students also can sign up for tickets and 40 will be randomly drawn to attend. The Falcons home gym has a capacity of about 700.

“It’s just the COVID,” said Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels. “The (school district) has had a large number of positive cases so this is a reaction to the COVID situation. Last year at this time, there were no spectators, not a single one. Now COVID is at its all-time worst and we’re letting people in. I get it. Vaccination rates are high, particularly in our community. But we still have a very high number of cases.”

Waynflete is similarly limiting spectators in its bleachers, which seat about 90 people. The Flyers are restricting home team members to three guests and visiting team members to two guests.

“Our gym is the tiniest gym in the conference,” said Athletic Director Ross Burdick. “We have had some games where it’s just packed wall to wall and people are standing. I think the administration and health team here wanted to keep people safe and not create close-contact situations.”

Restricting who can be in the gym will also make contact tracing easier if the need arises. “If we need to do contact tracing, we have a list of what kids are there,” said Sickels.

At Brewer High, school officials are allowing all fans in, with the exception of three games, against Skowhegan, Nokomis and Hampden Academy – and possibly a fourth later in the season against Bangor. For those games, the school provided vouchers to team members. Brewer athletes could claim as many as they wanted to distribute, opposing team members received four. Any leftovers would be distributed before the game.

Brewer athletic director Dave Utterback said the school created 600 vouchers for those games. Gym capacity is about 700.

“I would say that’s about 85 percent packed,” said Utterback. “It will look very full compared to last year.”

Utterback said it would be easier to have a blanket policy statewide, instead of simply recommendations, but lacking one, schools are doing the best they can.

“The dance we all have to make now is with the recommendations,” he said. “It’s all about how you interpret them.”

Old Orchard Beach is allowing all fans, but separating them into three pods: one for the school’s students, one for home fans, one for visiting fans.

“We have signs up,” said Athletic Director Dean Plante. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Most schools have eliminated concessions. And those that are selling them are not allowing food or drinks into the gym. That will help fans keep their masks on.

At South Portland, tickets are sold online. With a 50 percent-capacity limit (about 680 fans) at Beal Gymnasium, it’s easier to keep track of how many tickets are sold, said Athletic Director Todd Livingston. The school offered season passes to the families of the boys’ and girls’ players.

Tickets are available at the door on game night, he added. “We don’t want someone to get shut out if they can’t buy the tickets online,” said Livingston.

Of course, everyone knows that all this could change in an instant. The number of COVID cases in Maine has skyrocketed in the last few months, with Friday’s seven-day average at more than 1,000 cases daily. The omicron variant, with the first cases in Maine reported by the state on Friday, is a threat to push those numbers higher.

No one can say for certain that fans will be allowed in the gyms throughout the winter. As it is, some colleges have announced they will no longer allow fans, such as Northeastern University. And in the NHL, the Montreal Canadians banned fans earlier last week.

“We’ve got a plan in place right now for what happened in the last week or two and a plan in place for what might happen in a week or two,” said Brunswick’s Watson. “But two months down the road? We just don’t know.”

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