Carlson: Oklahoma high school football title games will be COVID superspreaders without protocol enforcement
Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association executive director David Jackson said lots of planning went into how fans would be distanced and masked during the state football championship games.
I believe him.
But planning only goes so far. There has to be enforcement, especially amid a pandemic and a public health crisis — and Saturday as the state’s two biggest high school classifications played for gold balls, the OSSAA dropped the ball.
Pictures, videos and eyewitness accounts from the Class 6A-I and Class 6A-II games reveal crowds too tightly packed and faces largely uncovered. The OSSAA played videos and made announcements throughout both games about masks and distancing, but clearly, no one from the association or the schools was following through on enforcement. No one was saying to the fans, “This isn’t a recommendation but a requirement for you to be here.”
A photo posted on the Jenks Public Schools Facebook page showing hundreds of largely unmasked fans jammed together celebrating the football team’s victory created a firestorm. There was backlash. There was outrage.
Sunday afternoon, Jenks issued an apology, and Monday afternoon, Jackson held a press conference.
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“We absolutely also know that we’ve got to do this in the safest manner in which we possibly can, so we’re going to do that,” he said. “We’re going to do a whole lot better.”
After initially starting his press conference with excuses — “The one picture that we saw probably in all fairness needs to be explained by the fact that it was a picture taken after the game was over where one of the students had the trophy and was showing it to the student section,” Jackson said. “The student section and the parents could not come out on the field, so several congregated and that made the main picture look really bad” — I had my doubts that anything would be changing.
The scene in that picture looked really bad because it was really bad.
The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re celebrating a state football championship. It will spread anyway. And just because most of the faces in the photo were young and unlikely to have serious consequences from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they are immune to getting the virus and spreading it to others who aren’t so healthy.
The truth is, those games are likely to become deadly events.
I know that’s dark, but it’s the reality. Doctors and scientists have said repeatedly if we gather in large groups without social distancing and mask wearing, transmission is certain, and during this current spike in transmission, there’s been a corresponding rise in deaths.
Trent Ratterree, who played high school football at Weatherford and college ball at OU, tweeted his concern over the lack of social distancing at the Class 6A-I game. He also mentioned something profound he heard recently.
“The more you enjoy an event doesn’t lessen your risk for contracting the virus.”
Come for the football. Stay for the COVID.
That’s why the OSSAA has to do better these next two weeks with its crowd protocols. The association decided previously to limit ticket sales to 6,000 for the 11-man games at the University of Central Oklahoma, and there is plenty of room at Wantland Stadium for that number of people to be safely distanced.
But marked-off seats in the bleachers must be empty.
And the grass hill on the east side must be utilized.
Our lead high school writer Cameron Jourdan reported less than a thousand people on the hill during each of last Saturday’s games. That hill accounts for about a third of the real estate in the stadium, so about a third of the fans need to sit there.
Jackson said the OSSAA would be directing fans to open seats the next two weekends, but the association has to enforce its seating standards. If a certain section is at its (reduced) capacity, people must be told to sit elsewhere.
That’s the sort of thing that didn’t happen this past weekend.
But Jackson said moving forward if fans aren’t willing to keep their distance or wear their masks, they will have to leave the stadium.
“That’s the last thing we want to do,” he said.
“If we still have people that do not want to comply, then yes, that has to be an option that we ask you to leave. We’ll refund the (ticket) money, and then we’ll ask you not to be there because we have to take people’s safety very seriously.”
The OSSAA said it was serious about safety before.
Now, it has to act like it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.