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Mask mandate and crowd restrictions add twist to unique high school football season

As if playing a seven-game regular season in February and March wasn’t strange enough, area high school football players and coaches are facing mandatory mask requirements and far smaller crowds than normal as a season like no other begins in less than two weeks.

The mask mandate is not new, but athletic officials didn’t receive clear guidance on how it would work until recently. Some were under the incorrect impression that masks wouldn’t be required when a player wore his mouthpiece during a game, but that all sideline personnel would have to wear them all the time.

However, under the restrictions listed in Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order, everyone engaged in outdoor activities must wear a mask if they can’t stay six feet apart and are not members of the same family.

The conundrum is how to breathe while wearing a mask and mouthpiece under game conditions.

“We are very fortunate that the Beaufort County School System has paid for 200 masks that attach to the helmet and fit behind the faceguard while leaving space for the mouthpiece,” Northside athletic director Jared Adams said. “They are not cheap (at $8 each), but they are legal and are supposed to keep the players safe while allowing them to breathe somewhat normally with their mouthguard in. Not all districts can afford it, so we are very grateful.”

Northside and Southside are each slated to get 60 masks, while Washington High School will get 80. The masks had not arrived as of Friday afternoon, but the coaches expect them any day.

“We are hoping they will work, and we are also hoping the Governor will re-assess the situation before we play,” Pam Pack coach Perry Owens said. “Decisions have been data-driven so far and cases and hospitalizations have been trending downward recently across the state. We will follow the letter of the law, but we’re hoping things relax a little.”

The community aspect of Friday night football will also look and feel different if current guidelines are still in effect when the season kicks off Feb. 26.

Crowds in outdoor venues that seat less than 10,000 are limited to 100. That’s actual seats, which don’t include open space around the fence near the sidelines that make more room for social distancing.

It’s different for the Carolina Panthers and the various college teams because the executive order says that stadiums bigger than 10,000 seats can hold seven percent of capacity.

No high school facility in the state has 10,000 seats according to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, so 100 fans is the limit for everyone.

“Football gate receipts are our main revenue source as it is for most programs around the state,” Northside coach Keith Boyd said. “it would be great if we could even raise it to 200 or 300 people, because every ticket sold goes to fund our other sports. We’ve created a priority ticket list with our parents first, then the visiting parents. Students are next, then the general public, but I doubt there will be many of those tickets available.”

Despite the uncertainty, Boyd, like other coaches, is ready to get started.

“Preparing for a football season since July has kept these kids engaged and given them something positive to work toward under very difficult circumstances,” he said. “We’re hoping the players continue to make good decisions off the field so we can have a season and we are more than ready for it to start.”