It wouldn’t have felt like a high school football state championship game without a few fans in the stands.
Last week, the Colorado Department of Health & Environment announced spectators would not be allowed into this week’s Colorado High School Activities Association state championship football games to be played Dec. 3-5 at the CSU-Pueblo Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl Stadium. After a weekend of deliberation fueled by a reconsideration request from CHSAA and reactions from families across the state, the CDPHE announced Tuesday that each team competing for state championships this week will be allowed a maximum of 75 fans. That total does not include members of cheer teams and bands that are permitted to travel to the title games.
“Our qualifying teams, school communities and staff were anxious about receiving a favorable decision,” CHSAA commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green said in a news release. “We submitted our reconsideration request on Friday and have spent numerous days asking our stakeholders and media partners to be patient. We are a small piece of the puzzle within the many decisions being made by state officials in these challenging times. We celebrate each incremental decision, even those delayed, as we continue to intentionally advocate for CHSAA schools and school communities in resuming safe and equitable participation during the disruptive impact of COVID-19.”
The original decision to keep fans outside the stadium came with COVID-19 cases spiking rapidly across the state, and especially in Pueblo County. The CDPHE estimated one in 29 people in Pueblo County were contagious with the coronavirus.
But player safety and travel also became an issue the CDPHE was forced to reconsider.
“As a public health agency, we are trying to balance mitigation of disease spread, but also acknowledge that some parents may choose to transport their children to the game,” said CDPHE executive director Jill Junsaker Ryan in a news release.
Ryan received emails during the weekend, including from Durango parents eager to see the Demons play in their first state championship football game since 1988.
Justin Bates, father of Durango lineman Joshua Bates, was one of those parents who advocated for parents to be able to attend the games.
“While I understand the need for safety in today’s current environment, I encourage you, your office, the governor’s office to evaluate the facts of this football season,” Bates wrote in an email to Ryan and Gov. Jared Polis. “All of these athletes have basically been quarantined with the strictest of protocols for this season just to get to this point. They are the healthiest demographic in the state. The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently (October 2020) published a study that suggests state high school sports have not caused an increase in COVID-19 infections among athletes.
“My son plays for Durango High School, a football family that has earned the right to compete in Pueblo for the 3A state championship. We have played three games this season in Pueblo and have not had one family member infected with or go to the hospital with COVID-19. The CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl is adequate to support social distancing and mask wearing for a limited number of parents. I respectfully request you reinstate the parent’s ability to attend this once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Safety was another consideration. If a player were to get injured and needed to immediately go to a local hospital, parents advocated that they needed to be at the game to join their child instead of several hours away in their respective town.
There was no option to play the games at other stadiums, CHSAA said. That included home sites hosting games on school campuses. CDPHE only approved the ThunderBowl. This will be the first time that every classification will have its state championships played in the same venue in CHSAA’s 100-year history.
The ThunderBowl seats 6,500 fans who are separated from the field by a 10-lane track. The 150 total fans allowed into the championship games is 2.3% of the stadium capacity. Non-household groups will be required to keep six feet of distance from other groups. Fans from each team will be kept separate with their own entrances and restrooms to keep communities apart from each other. All spectators also will be required to wear masks, as will coaches, officials and game staff and players who are not actively participating in the game.
Durango will play Roosevelt at 2 p.m. Saturday for the Class 3A state championship. Durango had 103 ticket requests as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, leaving tough decisions to be made as to who would be able to get a ticket.
“It’s an immediate family only kind of deal,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “It’s based on circumstances. It’s tough, and tickets are going quick.
“It wouldn’t have been a true state championship without parents and family being there to enjoy the experience. I’m just glad they went back on their decision and are allowing some fans to be there.”