Loud student sections, the marching band’s halftime show and bleachers full of fans set the usual scene at Waters-Wilkins Stadium on fall Friday nights. None of these things will take place at home games this season as a result of safety precautions during the pandemic.
Wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing are the new normal for fans who decide to attend sporting events.
Junior Hadiza Sarr has attended Cedar Shoals football games for the past three years to hang out with friends and cheer on her school, but she has opted to break that streak due to safety concerns. Jaguar fans like Sarr have had to decide if they would attend games amidst a global pandemic.
Even though there are safety guidelines in place, Sarr believes that they are hard to enforce.
“They have limited tickets, but I feel like a lot of people don’t care,” Sarr said. “The precautions that are supposed to be taken aren’t during football games because they’re overpopulated.”
Parent Lisa Bayer, who recently attended a home football game against Oconee County, said that most fans did a good job following the guidelines.
“It was required or suggested that we stay far from other groups so my son, his friend and I were in our own little cluster and everyone seemed to be socially distancing in the stands,” Bayer said. “Most folks had masks on, but because we were more than six feet apart and it was open air, some people took their masks off to eat or drink.”
In August, the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) released a list of recommended gameday guidelines which included limiting fan capacity at stadiums. GHSA left it up to the school districts to decide if they would limit the amount of fans and by how much. Clarke County School District limited the number of tickets sold for football games to 1,600 while making it clear that all tickets would have to be pre-purchased online and not at the stadium gates.
Some fans like Sarr believe that sports should be played without fans this year.
“I don’t think they should play with fans. I know that is the tradition especially with football, but (people) are usually sitting together in one close area,” Sarr said.
Senior Lily Gehner believes that sports should not be played at all this year. As the marching band’s drum captain, this also means canceling the performances she helps lead.
“It’s unavoidable to get into contact with other people during sports,” Gehner said. “I really think that we should wait and delay sporting events until a time where everyone can play and attend safely.”
Other fall sports like softball and cross country have seen their fan attendance decline this year.
“There are definitely less fans,” head softball coach Brittany Ritter said. “Even though softball is a less fan populated sport, we would definitely still get grandparents and other older fans. That has changed this year. Parents will still come, but grandparents are less inclined to come to the games. That has been sad for some athletes.”
Blake agrees that the fan turnout at cross country meets are lower than last year.
“I think there are probably less fans than last year,” sophomore cross country runner Obayemi Blake said. “We still have parents coming to the meets, but I think there are less fans because not everyone wants to come because of the COVID-19 virus.”
The lack of fans is also noticeable at away games.
“The attendance at away games has felt more absent than at home games,” head football coach Leroy Ryals said.
This school year, Cedar Shoals dropped from 5-A to 4-A classification which is adjusted every four years to make sure schools are playing other schools with similar enrollment numbers. This classification realignment means the Jaguars will be playing teams from further away.
“Cedar Shoals is playing people like Flowery Branch now, which is a region game, and that is an hour plus drive. We only have one or two parents making that long trek so it’s been a weird year,” Ritter said.
Now more aware of their absence, coaches, players and fans agree that having fans in attendance has an impact on their teams.
Sarr played on the Cedar Shoals softball team the last two years but decided not to play this year due to other commitments.
“Having a crowd that is active and cheers you on when you’re doing good or supports you when you are in a rough patch during the games really helps,” Sarr said.
Blake says the fans at cross country meets help to motivate him.
“Near the end of races, having fans cheer you on when you are running down the last stretch does give me that extra little bit of motivation. I do feel like fans affect us in a positive way,” Blake said.