BILLINGS — Yellowstone County unveiled its high school and middle school fall sports plan last week, and it prompted questions from many disgruntled people involved with athletics. Most of the discussion centered on the rule that bans spectators from games to begin the season.
Yellowstone County health officer John Felton elaborated on that decision and fielded many other questions from Visit Billings executive director Alex Tyson on Monday night. During the hourlong Q&A, Felton explained why high school sporting events will not admit fans while many summer events allowed limited attendance, and other counties have chosen to allow spectators this fall. He also urged patience as the county continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
“Nobody has ever said that the no spectator rule is forever,” Felton said. “If we make it through a few weeks and we actually have teams intact and we’re not seeing mass levels of isolation and quarantine, the next rational step is exactly what we’ve all talked about: then we go to a certain number of tickets.”
Of the Montana counties that have released fall sports plans, Yellowstone’s is among the strictest. Lewis and Clark County also decided not to allow spectators at sporting events to begin the season, while three schools in or near Big Horn County canceled fall sports. Butte-Silver Bow and Flathead counties will permit two spectators per participant, while Cascade chose three, among other counties that will allow fans.
Many Yellowstone County residents wondered why the limited attendance route wasn’t taken. Felton noted that any spectators present a greater risk of coronavirus transmission than none, even if all of them were distanced and wearing face coverings.
Yellowstone County currently accounts for more than half of the state’s active cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and case counts have increased throughout the summer at both county and statewide levels. That played a big role in the county’s no spectator rule.
Felton and the other people who formulated the fall sports plan felt it was better to begin the season with strict guidelines and hopefully ease them down the road. Starting the season with crowds at sporting events in a county with community spread would likely result in more cases, which would jeopardize the fall sports season.
“From a pure disease transmission perspective, the answer is no sports,” Felton said. “We don’t want to do that. We want to at least try. Do we know what’s going to happen in three weeks? No. Do we think we should do everything we can to at least have a choice in three weeks? Absolutely.”
Felton and others involved with the fall sports plan will re-evaluate the guidelines every two to three weeks, he said. If the COVID-19 outlook improves, fans might be allowed in the stands.
The plan was based on discussions with Yellowstone County’s activities directors and superintendents, the Montana High School Association’s guidelines, the Office of Public Instruction reopening guidance, Gov. Steve Bullock's plan for reopening schools and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
On Monday, Felton said he and his staff asked Yellowstone County athletic directors to vote on the number of spectators they wanted at games to begin the season. The vote wasn’t unanimous, but “a significant majority” preferred no spectators, he said.
The AD input helps explain why fall high school and middle school sports will operate differently from summer events like American Legion baseball, State Amateur golf and MontanaFair. Those events all included large groups of people who mostly flouted distancing and face mask recommendations. Those events were also sponsored by different groups who decided on different guidelines than schools.
“Many of (the sponsors) produce plans for how they would manage spacing and what they do about masking, sanitation, those types of things,” Felton said. “From a process perspective, what many of those events did was not dissimilar to what happened with the athletics in the schools.”
Events like the fair are what Felton called “stranger events.” In other words, many people who attended the fair did not know each other and thus were less likely to make close contact with others. A high school football game, on the other hand, features many family members and friends. Disease spread happens much less often at stranger events than it does at school sporting events, weddings, barbecues, workplaces and other settings where people tend to have closer relationships with those around them, Felton said.
Public health officials have the authority to cancel and close events but not approve them, Felton added. The authority to approve events and put them on lies with the sponsors. Complaints about people or events violating Bullock's directives go to the county attorney. RiverStone Health, the Yellowstone County public health agency, cannot enforce those guidelines.
"Those sponsors, many of them have to come to us with plans. Some have not. Some have just run their events. That is their right. If they violate the governor's directives, they're liable for that," Felton said. "What we encourage people to do is, if they're going to do an event, to make a plan. Send that plan to us. We don't approve, but we can help them identify areas of risk."
Another question Felton has heard often is why fall sports are being handled differently than high school graduation in May. School District 2 allowed two guests per graduate to attend the ceremony, which was held on May 24. On that day, zero new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Montana for the third straight day, and the state had 22 active cases. More than 50 cases were reported Monday, bringing the active case total to 1,556. One of those positive tests came from someone at Shepherd Schools, which closed its buildings for two days as a result.
“It’s just a very different world,” Felton said.
More than 26,000 people have signed a petition directed at Bullock to allow spectators at high school sporting events and music and theater events. Montana public health is county-based and designed to be apolitical, "not subject to polls and electoral concerns," said Felton, who asked petition signers to focus on the main goal: to keep schools open and thus allow the fall sports season to continue. To do so, of course, the COVID-19 crisis must improve.
Toward the end of the Q&A, Tyson asked Felton about people who have threatened to ignore the no spectator rule and go to sporting events. Felton reiterated the main reason why he, athletic directors and others decided on games without fans to begin the season. Groups of people watching these games in person would increase the risk of COVID-19 spread. There's a good chance some of those infected people would transmit the disease to athletes, resulting in quarantines and endangering fall sports.
"I understand people are frustrated, people are tired of this," Felton said. "I ask people, let's care enough about these kids to want to keep them in school, to want to keep them playing their sports, to just be a little patient. Give us a few weeks to see what happens."