County’s largest schools to host football games amid COVID-19 surge

If all goes as planned, about 3,000 fans tonight will walk through the gates at Ray Skillman Stadium at Center Grove High School for a game between the undefeated Trojans and undefeated Cathedral Fighting Irish, both of whom are nationally ranked.

The game, for which tickets have already sold out, will be far and away the most attended scholastic matchup this year, even at 50% of the stadium’s 6,000-person capacity. And it comes at a time when both the county and state are experiencing the highest levels of newly reported COVID-19 cases yet.

On Wednesday, the seven-day average of cases per day in Johnson County hit 41, the most it has ever been and more than quadruple the average on Sept. 24, when there were 10 cases per day, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health.

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Indiana COVID-19 cases are also on the rise. The state recorded its single-day record of positive COVID-19 tests Thursday, with 1,960 newly reported cases. The seven-day rolling average of positive tests per day stands at 1,653, more than double what it was on Sept. 24, according to the state’s data.

On Wednesday, for the first time, Johnson County was moved to yellow from blue, due to the positivity rate in the county climbing to 5.8%. The rate is more than double what it was on Sept. 24, the day before the Trojans’ last home varsity football game, data shows.

The Johnson County Health Department had approved a plan for Center Grove High School to increase capacity at its football games to 75% once Indiana transitioned to the final stage of reopening on Sept. 26, but school officials backtracked to 50% capacity this week due to the recent surge, Center Grove schools spokesperson Stacy Conrad said in an email.

All previous Center Grove home football games were capped at 25% capacity, as they occurred while Indiana was still in Stage 4 of its reopening plan. The decision to increase capacity beyond 25% was a group decision, athletic director Jon Zwitt said.

The county health department did not suggest a certain capacity percentage or any caps on social gatherings, but approved plans from local schools as long as they could adhere to social distancing guidelines, which require people to be at least six feet apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19, health department director Betsy Swearingen said.

“My recommendation is to stay diligent, wear masks and maintain proper social distancing,” Swearingen said.

Seats are not staggered for social distancing at Ray Skillman Stadium, although fans are asked to maintain distance when choosing seats. Fans are also required to wear masks to enter the stadium and throughout the game, Conrad said.

Whiteland Community High School has allowed up to 50% capacity (about 1,200 spectators) at its home games this season, athletic director David Edens said, although it does not always put that many tickets up for sale.

There won’t be any changes of protocol due to the county’s move to yellow from blue, he said.

“With cases climbing in the county, it doesn’t seem smart to (increase capacity),” Edens said. “We’re offering a quality broadcast and we’re happy with the plan we have. We’d love to have full bleachers, but it’s not something that can happen this year.”

Whiteland will look at possibly restricting attendance further, Edens added, if the county moves to orange, which could happen if the seven-day positivity rate in the county climbs above 10%, or if there are more than 200 positive cases in the county per 100,000 residents within a week.

The state health department updates the color-coded map each Wednesday.

For now, fans will be told to mask up and spread out, even though staggered seating is reliant on fans choosing to spread out and mask wearing is only strictly monitored upon entrance and in the student section, Edens said.

“We ask that everyone has to wear a mask at the ticket gate, and we ask that they continue to wear masks any time social distancing isn’t possible; those are the expectations,” he said. “We make several announcements throughout the game reminding them to mask up, at the end of each quarter and halftime. We police the student sections and make sure they’re wearing masks.”

The Whiteland and Center Grove football games are two of three scheduled in Johnson County tonight. The Edinburgh Community High School varsity football team will also host a game. Franklin Community High School’s game against Decatur Central High School was canceled.