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Restrictions Eased At High School Sporting Events As Senate Republicans Pursue Legislative Mandate

Katherine Joyce | NCASA Executive Director

Governor Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced he will ease restrictions on attendance at high school and college sporting events while lifting the state’s modified stay-home order and adjusting the limits on bar operations and the current alcohol sales curfew. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans pushed forward Senate Bill 116 that would increase the attendance capacity at outdoor sporting events for public and nonpublic high schools even if the Governor orders lower limits for spectators the remainder of this school year.

Governor Cooper’s new Executive Order 195, detailed in this press release, will replace Executive Order 189 that expires Sunday. His new order, that takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday 2/26, includes the following limits for school, college and other sporting events:

  • Up to 30% of the venue capacity for outdoor facilities,
  • The lesser of 250 spectators or 30% of the venue capacity for most indoor facilities, and
  • Up to 15% capacity for larger indoor venues seating more than 5,000.

His expiring modified stay-at-home order had implemented a statewide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., prohibited on-site alcohol sales from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and limited capacity for many gatherings and businesses. Guests in spectator stands and viewing areas at school and other sporting facilities, stadiums, or sporting complexes have been limited to the lesser of 100 people or 30% of the facility's stated outdoor occupancy. For spaces without a stated outdoor occupancy, no more than seven guests have been permitted for every 1,000 square feet of the outdoor area's square footage.

Ahead of the Governor’s announcement, SB 116 was introduced to require public and nonpublic high schools to set capacity limits for spectators at outdoor sporting events to no more than 40% of the facility's approved occupancy capacity under the fire code. For facilities without occupancy capacities under the fire code, no more than seven persons for every 1,000 square feet would be allowed under the bill. However, individual schools, at the discretion of their governing bodies, could choose to implement stricter access to outdoor sporting events. Schools would still be required to comply with nonconflicting portions of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' (NCDHHS) StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit from Feb. 2, 2021 and Interim Guidance for Administrators and Participants of Youth and Amateur Sports Programs. For the purposes of SB 116, "spectators" would not include athletes, employees of a public or nonpublic high school, entertainers, or staff providing support for the sporting event.

The bill – sponsored by Sens. Todd Johnson (R-Union), Danny Britt (R-Robeson) and Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) – responds to outreach from parents who want to watch their children play sports. More than 45,000 signatures collected on a petition urges increasing the spectator capacity at outdoor athletic events held by schools. SB 116 was approved by the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee on Wednesday after being amended to clarify that the proposed increase in spectators would apply to all outdoor sports, including baseball, softball, lacrosse, soccer and others in which families often bring their own lawn chairs when watching the event.

Johnson, the bill’s leading sponsor, said his goal was to spur action by the Governor. “We would be just as satisfied to see Governor Cooper change this on his own,” Johnson said at a press conference before the bill’s hearing by the Education Committee. “In fact, I prefer that.”

But Johnson said in a Wednesday evening email to WRAL News that the governor's latest 30 percent capacity for outdoor stadiums doesn’t go far enough. "It doesn’t make much sense to me to allow 50% capacity inside restaurants, where it’s physically impossible to always wear a mask, and allow only 30% capacity at wide open outdoor sports venues. Unless I hear a compelling reason for that difference, I plan to move forward with my bill," he wrote.

In presenting the bill in the Education Committee, Johnson said many sports complexes can seat several thousand people but now have “an unreasonable 100-person limit” that is keeping families from missing key moments in the lives of their student athletes. “To quote James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams: If you pass this bill, ‘the people will come,’” Johnson said.

The bill cleared the Senate Rules Committee earlier today, along with Senate Bill 115 that would open outdoor sports events to 50% capacity in only a few counties. That bill, for which Johnson is also the lead sponsor, would apply only to Alamance, Anson, Haywood, Iredell, Moore, Onslow, Randolph, Richmond, Rockingham, Scotland, Stokes, Surry, Union, and Yadkin. As a local bill affecting fewer than 15 counties, that legislation does not require action by the Governor and could not be vetoed.

Both bills next move to the Senate floor, where they could face debates and votes early next week.

Katherine Joyce
kjoyce@ncasa.net