Tampa Bay-area school officials breathed a sigh of relief that their first weekend of high school football games didn’t yield a Baker County moment.
No one wanted to see a video of unmasked fans cramped together without social distancing, screaming and yelling for the world to see, as happened a week earlier in northern Florida.
“I think it went really well,” said Hillsborough County schools superintendent Addison Davis, who attended the Plant vs. Lennard game to monitor implementation of new rules inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those included the use of electronic tickets, spaced out seating and mandatory masks. For the most part, fans and athletes followed the safety procedures.
“Obviously, you’re going to have issues with people having to wear masks all the time,” said Matt Wicks, Pasco County athletic director. “Just like in Publix.”
But even the mask mishaps were limited, officials said. Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett estimated compliance at about 90 percent. There were, to be sure, some photos circulating of some prohibited celebrations and maskless cheering.
Game announcers made sure to continually remind everyone of the rules, though, Pinellas district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said, which helped with both facial coverings and social distancing.
The expectation, the leaders said, is to see better understanding of the rules as the season continues. No one anticipated making any changes to their current approach for Week 2.
That didn’t mean, however, that there wasn’t room for improvement.
“We’ve got to consistently make certain it’s being implemented,” Davis said of the protocols.
He suggested the need for more consistency in areas such as cashless games, including at concessions. Bennett pointed to a need for more attention to social distancing.
None of the officials would go so far as to say that the season started too soon, even while noting that some games had to be canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests that led to team quarantines. Neither were they ready to take the approach of Orange County schools, where the student-athletes were told to attend online schooling and the district committed $2 million to pre-game virus testing.
“I’m not going to tell a parent what’s the best educational environment for their child,” Davis said, observing that anyone can become ill regardless of where they attend school.
It’s about making appropriate choices and keeping safe, he said.
“Athletes will see, if they want to participate they’ll continue to take the right steps,” he said.
As for investing money into testing football players, Davis didn’t discount the importance of the tests. But it’s important to put it in the context of ensuring students have access to technology and appropriate curriculum, cleaning and sanitizing schools, and other critical aspects of the system, he added.
“This county is bigger than athletics,” Wicks, Pasco’s athletic director, said in agreement. “It’s about using that money for all students. ... There’s a bigger picture behind this.”
Going forward, the districts hope to be able to get closer to normal in their athletic activities.
Until then, they expect to keep moving forward, while hoping not to regress.
“I will got to a game every night to see how we can improve our practice,” Davis said. “We are not ready to go all the way yet."