OPINION: Why now is the right time to allow limited fans at H.S. basketball games

The St. Joseph-Metuchen “Falcon Flock,” the student section that’s often raucous at St. Joe’s basketball games, has been noticeably absent this year due to COVID regulations banning all fans from games. Source: St. Joe’s website)

The news broke on NJ.com shortly after flip-off (no tip-offs!) of our high school basketball game last night between No. 6 Colonia and Edison. The Eagles had finished their Senior Night activities, but no parents were anywhere to be found.

In fact, the game was delayed a bit so that the masked parents – who didn’t even bother to take off their coats, that’s how quick they were in and out of the gym – could get home in time to watch and listen to the live stream of the game.

NJ.com reported that Governor Murphy could announce today that limited fans – possibly with an emphasis or priority on parents of seniors – would be allowed at high school basketball games in New Jersey.

The news was not a complete surprise. The day before the regular season started on January 25th, Murphy hinted that he was leaning in that direction “soon,” though didn’t commit to a policy or timetable.

Fans have been missing from high school basketball games across New Jersey, but a few two-dimensional ones – even a couple furry family members – were present at last night’s girls’ basketball home game against Edison.

Central Jersey Sports Radio will be on the Governor’s virtual COVID briefing today to hear the news, if indeed it does get announced today. (Murphy is holding the call virtually after he went into self-quarantine earlier this week following a positive COVID test by one of his family members; the Governor himself has tested negative.)

I say, it’s about time. And the Governor probably has seen enough feedback from the last few weeks to realize it’s possible.

What also helps is that the people involved in this decision-making/feedback process are parents. The Governor has kids who play high school sports, as does NJSIAA Executive Director Colleen Maguire. And the Murphy has sat at the dais during COVID with Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who is also the head football coach at Hackensack.

Here are three people so closely connected to high school sports, that they get it. They are not handing down rules from some ivory tower,

But are they too close? Are they blinded by the emotion of wanting to see their kids play in person so much that they ignore the science?

Not by a long shot.

What the Governor likely will propose is some sort of highly limited capacity. He’s also talked about prioritizing senior parents. But think about it: high school teams are capped at 14 varsity players.

Let’s say parents are only allowed at home games. Assuming every parent could make every game, that’s a maximum 28 parents. But there are single parents, some who work, and some who have other things going on. So we’re probably talking 14 to 28 extra people in a gym.

Most high school gyms can fit at least a couple hundred fans. Many are larger. I’ve heard the question “Who is going to monitor this? How will we make sure they wear masks?”

It’s certainly easier than it was during football season, where stadiums are much larger and much more spread out.

And the timing – I mean, it could be better – but it’s not bad.

The numbers are coming down in New Jersey. They’re better here than in a lot of states.

They’re far from good, of course. And while we still need to take precautions – wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands often – there’s no reason people acting reasonably can”t come into a high school gym.

Take a look around: New York City sports arenas will be opening to very small capacities in just over a week. Of course, fans will be required to show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours, but we’re also talking about 2,000 fans, who likely will have a beer (or two or three) and might be acting rowdy. That won’t be the case with 20 or so high school parents.

I’ve been at four high school basketball games since the start of the season. It was sad to see Edison parents show up for Senior Night, be honored, then have to leave to go home to watch their sons play on YouTube because they’re not allowed in the gym.

But the main thing is this: only three weeks remain in Season 2, for high school basketball. Three weeks, and only very limited opportunities for parents to see their sons and daughters – especially their senior sons and daughters – take the court.

Time is running out faster than we can get a wrap around COVID-19.

The mantra from student-athletes and parents for months had been “Let ‘Em Play.”

Now, I say, “Let ‘Em Watch.” Just maybe not all of them at the same time.

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