OPELIKA (AP) — Alabama high schools are severely limiting attendance at football games this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, and at least one canceled sports after deciding it wasn't worth the risk to play.
Opelika High School said it will cap attendance at about 30% of the stadium's normal capacity of 8,000 so fans can maintain proper social distancing, and Gulf Shores said attendance at athletic events will be cut by 50%.
Other schools are also announcing attendance reductions or still working on plans. The first football games are scheduled for this week, although some schools have delayed contests after players or staff tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
The moves follow an announcement by state health officials on Thursday that fans can attend games despite the pandemic. The agency asked schools to limit crowds and require anyone in attendance to wear face masks and keep away from other people to avoid spreading the virus.
At Opelika, a large Class 6A school, athletic director Mike Pugh said officials first planned to limit capacity to 50% but realized that was still too many people for everyone to stay 6 feet apart, the Opelika-Auburn News reported.
"We didn't want it to look like one of these beach scenes or party scenes where we had just a crowd of people in there. We were trying to be very vigilant about what if it looked bad and would we have a safe environment," he said.
In Dallas County, Ellwood Christian Academy decided to cancel its football, volleyball and soccer seasons rather than take a risk during the pandemic.
"The safety of our coaches and players are important," principal Gary Crum told The Selma Times-Journal. "A lot of the kids stay with their grandparents. We didn't want to run the risk of the kids bringing the coronavirus to their families. I couldn't live with myself if that happened. The church is closed and I'd look like a hypocrite if we let the kids play fall sports."
In Baldwin County, where the city of Gulf Shores is limited crowds and county schools are considering cutbacks, Josh Turner of Spanish Fort watched a high school team practice on Thursday. He told WPMI-TV that a season with limited seating is better than none at all.
"We'll take what we can get at this point. It's just such a big part of this community," said Turner.
Testing has confirmed more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 in Alabama since the pandemic began in the spring, and more than 1,820 have died. While most people experience only mild to moderate symptoms, the virus can be deadly to elderly people and those with other health problems.