HELENA -- As Helena Capital and Helena High student-athletes continue preparations for their first athletic events of the fall, both the Bruins and Bengals learned those activities will sound a lot different, at least in the beginning.
Helena activities director Tim McMahon told MTN Sports he has submitted a proposal to conduct activities to the Lewis and Clark County Health Department, stating that the plan "did not ask for spectators" because of guidelines within the county. The plan would prohibit fans in the fall sports of football, volleyball, cross country, golf and soccer.
“The decision not to allow fans is in reaction to the guidance from the Lewis and Clark Health Department. There’s a directive that allows games to be played, there’s a directive that allows fans to be in the stands, there’s no way to do both," McMahon explained. "If I go over 50 people and I allow a spectator, then everybody has to socially distance, including the players on the field or on the court. Now I can’t play the game. If I stay with no spectators, over 50 people, no spectators, only coaches, players and the officials you need to run the event, then the players on the field are exempt from socially distancing.”
“I think the biggest question of all is, ‘Why?’" McMahon continued, referencing the now constant flow of inquiries the activities office is receiving. "I can’t do both fans in the stands and the game on the court or on the field. The directives don't allow me to do that. That’s the 'why' piece. How do I change that? This is a county health order, a direction, guidance from county health. If the guidance changes, I’m happy to submit a plan, an amendment to my current plan that asks for or includes, how would we do spectators in Helena. Of course, I would be happy to.”
Helena is the latest of Montana's Class AA communities to announce its guidelines regarding fans at sporting events this fall. On Tuesday, Yellowstone County also released its no-fan policy to start the season, and later in the afternoon, Flathead County announced it would allow home participants two tickets but prohibited visiting fans from attending.
McMahon said the activities directors at Montana's highest classification have been in contact "very regularly," hosting meetings consistently since the novel coronavirus made its introduction in the Treasure State.
“Why are they so different across the state? That I get asked a lot," McMahon said of the differing guidelines. "My answer to that is, this is local control. Each county health department gets to create and approve plans for their county. There isn’t consistency across the state with the county health departments and what their interpretations are. That really, in the end, is why you see differences across the state. It’s why Billings has no fans and it’s why Helena has no fans, but Butte has already said they will and Kalispell has already said they will. The differences come because each is a local control issue with an individual county board of health.”
Meanwhile, parents and fans across Montana continue to express their frustration with the decisions. A Laurel mother created an online petition aimed at allowing parents access to the sporting events, while a Facebook group was created with the intent of creating a plan to approach the local health departments with hopes of changing their guidelines.
“I believe the best thing they can do is continue to reach out to both county officials and school district officials to understand, specifically, why some decisions have been made, and then what can we do as a community to address those concerns," McMahon said. "I think the educational piece of it is really important.”
“I hope people understand that the goal is for kids to have an opportunity to play," he continued. "If I can get fans into the stands in Helena, or if they can get them in the stands in Billings, we absolutely want that. But our focus is not on getting parents the opportunity to watch their kids play, but our focus is on ensuring that your child gets the opportunity to play.”