By TIM KELLY
It’s been a rough time for local athletes, coaches, fans and parents who have been dealing with measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Finally, things have taken a positive turn.
On Feb. 12, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that parents and guardians of senior athletes – as well as a limited number of fans – will be permitted to attend winter and spring sports events.
The governor’s statement gave hope that New Jersey schools are taking the first tentative steps away from virtual events, games and practices at near-empty venues and toward traditional competitions in stadiums and gyms.
This was good news to all parties who’ve been stricken with COVID cabin fever.
“The kids have been divided into two different cohorts since September,” said Jennifer Bowman, whose senior daughter Katie is an Ocean City High School Red Raider star lacrosse player. “I am praying the seniors will have the opportunity to walk the hallways together before they graduate. They miss each other.”
Murphy’s statement announced an executive order that takes place immediately. It seemed to indicate scholastic sports’ “old normal” could be back in the not-too-distant future.
“As a father of four, I know how difficult it has been for many parents to not be able to see their kids participate in sports,” Murphy said. “With our metrics trending in the right direction, we feel comfortable … allowing parents back into youth sporting events.”
The order allows up to two parents or guardians per athlete under the age of 21 to attend both indoor and outdoor practices and competitions statewide. Indoor events many not exceed 35% capacity, or 150 people, the governor said.
Though less than perfect, the new policy is a welcomed improvement, said Red Raiders head football coach Kevin Smith.
“I’m happy for the basketball families that they’ll get to see a little live action. Hopefully people can maintain their discipline a bit longer so we can speed up the process of returning to normal,” Smith said.
The Red Raiders football team was permitted to have 500 fans last season, “so all things considered, we had a pretty good situation,” Smith noted.
One of his players, All-State wide receiver and lacrosse standout Jake Schneider, went out for the basketball team, his first year of organized hoops since eighth grade, as a way to get around the previous restrictions.
“Many of his friends from football and other sports are on the basketball team,” his mom Maureen Schneider said. “Jake thought that since he couldn’t watch games in the gym, if he made the team he could at least watch from the bench.”
It worked out even better than that, as Jake not only made the squad, he has been getting significant playing time.
“(Going out for basketball) turned out to be a good decision,” said Jake, who is headed to Cabrini University on a lacrosse scholarship.
“Even though there haven’t been fans at the games, we are really good at creating our own energy,” he added. “We cheer each other after good plays and things like that. I think that was a big reason we beat teams like Atlantic City and Wildwood Catholic.”
Jake said he was hoping fans would be allowed at lacrosse and other spring sports, which are played in outdoor venues with enough space for people to be safe.
Boys basketball took another hit this week when it was learned an opposing player from Wednesday’s game against Cape May Tech tested positive for the virus and the Red Raiders starters and players who were on the court with that opponent would be quarantined for 14 days.
Murphy said all spectators must follow the New Jersey Department of Health’s guidelines, including wearing masks, social distancing and staying home when sick. Spectators will also be expected to cooperate with contact-tracing efforts.
Schools may impose stricter guidelines if they wish, and may decide when and if to implement Murphy’s guidelines, according to the statement.
Although the governor’s new policy does not signal a full return to normal, it is a big improvement, according to Jennifer Bowman.
“The senior parents have been mourning the loss of our kids’ final year in high school sports. We’ve been working with them since kindergarten. Senior year is supposed to be full of celebrations and togetherness. It will be nice to go to a game in person.”
COVID-19 precautions don’t just affect athletes, Bowman added. Concerts, plays and school events such as the popular “Mr. Ocean City” pageant have also been lost or held virtually because of the pandemic.
“Some of these events aren’t the same when they’re virtual,” Bowman said. “Maybe they can wait until the warmer weather and hold them on the football field, where everyone could have fun and still be safe.”