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Pennsylvania Crowd Sizes Grow Amid Political Battles

Paul Steinbach

Some Pennsylvania school districts are preparing to allow more fans in the stands following a federal judge’s ruling that struck down statewide pandemic limits on crowd size.

As reported by The Express of Lock Haven, governor Tom Wolf's administration is appealing last week's ruling, but a number of districts have already opted to go their own way, including the Altoona Area School District, which will allow up to 3,400 spectators at Mansion Park Stadium — 33 percent of its capacity — for Friday’s game. If that goes well, Altoona would let more than 5,000 attend the following week’s rivalry game against nearby Hollidaysburg.

The state Department of Education has asked schools to voluntarily comply with Wolf’s since-invalidated gathering restrictions, which had been set at 25 fans for indoor events and 250 outdoors until the court ruled last week that such limits were unconstitutional.

Related: Pennsylvania Governor Vetos Bill on HS Crowd Size

House Republicans lost an override vote this Wednesday on Wolf’s veto of a bill that would have given school boards the ability to make decisions on sports and extracurricular activities, including whether and how many spectators to allow. It had passed the House earlier this month with 150 “yes” votes, but the override tally, 130-71, fell slightly short of the required supermajority.

Representative Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) called the proposal a return to common sense, but minority Leader Frank Dermody warned that it’s “folly” to act like the coronavirus is going away.

“This is about politics,” said Dermody (D-Allegheny). “This is not about the safety of our children. It’s not about the welfare of student-athletes.”

Schools are taking some precautions. 

The Altoona School District is requiring that people wear masks when entering the stadium or going to the restroom or concession stand. “I don’t know what Friday night will look like, because everyone’s really, as you can imagine, itching to get out,” said spokesperson Paula Foreman. “Even when people get into those stands, there is certainly enough spacing in that stadium to keep everyone pretty well distanced.”

The Eastern Lancaster School District will allow as many as 1,000 people into its stadium, and up to 148 for indoor events like girls' volleyball.

The Hempfield Area School District outside Pittsburgh intends to distribute two tickets to each football player, cheerleader and band member. District officials estimate that will result in no more than 1,000 people in a stadium that holds about 6,000. Concession stands will be closed, and spectators won’t be allowed to mill about.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association told member schools that Wolf’s caps aren’t mandatory, “at least for the moment,” and that each school can make its own decision on crowds at games.

“If schools decide to increase the 25/250 limits, they should exercise caution and good judgment in setting numbers for attendance at indoor and outdoor sports,” wrote PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi.

At a news conference Tuesday, Wolf said he monitored attendance at football games last weekend — days after the judge’s ruling — and said “there were very few schools, if any, that had big, big crowds at their events.” He surmised that people “self-regulated” and stayed away to avoid crowds.

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