COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — About one in six Ohio school districts asked the state for permission to add additional spectators for fall sporting events, exceeding the limits set by Gov. Mike DeWine in last month's sports order, records show.
The Health Department approved all requests quickly, often on the same day it received them, although some local departments reduced districts’ requests before they went to the state for approval, according to district requests and the state's responses, obtained by The Associated Press through the open records law.
“Social distancing is easily accomplished in our bleachers at 20% capacity,” J. Edward Dickens, the superintendent of Waverly schools in southern Ohio, said in an Aug. 28 request. The district also has four compliance officers to help enforce social distancing and other required mandates, Dickens told the Pike County health department.
Matt Brewster, Pike County health commissioner, forwarded the request to the state the same day recommending approval. Interim Health Director Lanes Himes approved it the following Monday, allowing the district to increase from 420 to 560 the number of spectators at its stadium.
The governor’s Aug. 19 order prohibits spectators at events other than family members or individuals close to athletes, with final decisions on those people left up to schools.
Similar limits are in place for family members of marching bands and drill teams. The order set seating at 15% of an outdoor facility's capacity, as long as social distancing can be maintained.
Districts seeking a variance made the request first to local health departments, which gave initial approval and then forwarded to the state on behalf of the schools.
Many districts asked for variances to allow senior players four tickets for home games. Others asked for leeway to allow more spectators while still following social distancing, such as group family members in seating “pods” that are still 6 feet from others.
“With this limit, we will not be able to support every athlete or band member participating in a game,” Anita Jorney-Gifford, athletic director at Northwestern Local Schools in Wayne County, wrote in the district's Aug. 21 request. “We know the importance of family in the stands to cheer and support their child.”
The Health Department agreed, granting the district permission on Aug. 27 to increase the number of spectators from 285 (15% of Northwestern's stadium capacity) to 360 (19%) to allow distribution of two tickets per participant.
Some districts, such as Berne Union Local schools in southeastern Ohio, reduced their seating request after receiving guidance from the local health department.
Berne Union initially wanted four tickets for each of its 25 football players but reduced that to two per player except for seniors, who would receive eight. The Fairfield County health department forwarded the revised request, which was approved on Sept. 3.
In a few cases, local health departments denied part of a district's request.
Williard City Schools in northern Ohio wanted an additional 220 seats around its football field, according to its Aug. 28 request.
“This is in excess of what they require,” the Huron County health commissioner told the state the same day. “We have granted an additional 140 seats around the field.” The state Health Department approved the revised request the same day.
Many districts said they planned to use portable bleachers, space on running tracks around football fields, and other nearby grass expanses to provide the extra seating.
Almost without exception, most variance requests were made by small or midsize districts, often in rural communities.
Only one big-city district — Canton — asked for a variance, for that city's Paul Brown stadium, which seats almost 18,000. The district noted in its Aug. 21 request that the stadium is the traditional site of state tournament finals and other championship games.
The state hasn't granted that request because variances can be only for extra seats for family members of players. The Health Department is awaiting more information from Canton, said spokeswoman Melanie Amato.
Many big-city districts already have enough seating in their stadiums to safely accommodate family members, said Joe Vassalotti, coordinator of athletics for Akron city schools, which did not ask for a variance for the lone stadium where all games will be played this fall.
DeWine this month granted a variance to the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals allowing them up to 6,000 spectators — 1,500 on each side of the stadium — for each of the teams' two home games this year.
The Health Department also allowed the Mid-Ohio race track to host 6,000 spectators at an Indy Car event last weekend, below the 9,600 requested by event organizers.