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Local Health Departments Struggle To Enforce Protocols As Some High Schools Pack Gyms

Seymour gym

Seymour's Lloyd E. Scott gymnasium is one of four high schools hosting semi-state games this weekend. The school has taken steps to implement social distancing and limit celebrations. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

The NCAA tournament isn’t the only basketball Indiana is hosting this week.  

High schools enter semi state play this weekend. While many facilities are taking the proper precautions, some health officials are worried large crowds packing high school gyms pose risks for reigniting an outbreak.  

Images of celebrations and crowds in high school gyms across Indiana were commonplace pre-pandemic. Now, they’re a cause for concern.

While Indiana’s COVID-19 positivity rate and hospitalizations are at their lowest levels in months, public health officials are still sounding alarms about large crowds gathering for basketball.

“I get it, it’s March Madness. This is Indiana,” Dr. Daniel Handel, Chief Medical Officer for Indiana University Health’s South-Central region said. “But, we’ve got to get through another season of basketball before we can let our guards down.”

While the state is hosting 68 teams for the NCAA men’s tournament, restrictions, daily testing, and strict capacity limits are expected to limit virus transmission.

But most high school basketball teams don’t have those luxuries.

Last year, high school basketball was the source of multiple super spreader events. Each requires pre-approval from local health departments, but officials have little way to enforce plans once they’re approved.

READ MORE: Not Just A Statistical Error: Why COVID-19 Has Gripped A Small Indiana County

“We’re just not able to with the amount of staff that we have,” Geoff Stoner, the Daviess County Health Department Environmental Health Supervisor, said. “We do rely on those to follow the rules and do what they’re supposed to do for the mitigation and make sure they are enforcing it on their side.”

North Daviess High School did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their plans and enforcement strategies after images on social media showed nearly full stadiums with few people wearing masks. 

Other schools are being more transparent and socially distant.

Seymour High School’s Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium is one of the largest in the country, and has been hosting IHSAA tournament games for decades.

Athletic Director, Kirk Manns, says they’re limiting celebrations and cleaning the venue in between games. His main goal this year is to ensure safe competition.

“We do what we can to ensure their safety as far as moving on to the next week,” Manns said.

He credits the school’s custodial staff, volunteers, and partnerships with local health officials.

While his venue is allowed to operate at half capacity—which is about 4,000—that many spectators haven’t shown up to any event thus far, and he expects that’ll be the case this weekend as well.

“We're not getting to half capacity right now,” he said. “I believe that people are not ready to come out yet, for whatever reason that is.”

Manns said “it's going to take a little bit of time to for folks to gain that trust back and to want to come out and to be in a crowd.”

He admits most spectators are compliant, but he says each school is responsible for its own student section.

While the atmosphere is different this year, Manns insists the level of play is still the same. The coaching and attention to detail—all hallmarks of Indiana high school basketball—haven’t changed either.

“The casual spectator right now, a lot of them are making the decision ‘not yet for me,’” he said. “Hopefully by this time next year, Lloyd E. Scott gymnasium is on the brink of capacity again for the state tournaments.”

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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