Large hoop crowd

Woburn's Meghan Qualey finds herself surrounded by Billerica players during a tournament game from last season as a large crowd looks on at Torrice Gymnasium. Crowds like this are most likely not happening this season. Initially, there will be no spectators allowed at Middlesex League indoor games. League Athletic Directors and Superintendents will review that situation after the first four weeks of the season which began with the start of practices for basketball, hockey and gymnastics on Monday, Dec. 14.

As high school winter athletic activities commenced this week, some severe restrictions will be enforced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that no one has ever seen before.

Perhaps the most severe won’t even be on the ice rink, the gymnastics mat or on the basketball court for athletes and coaches, but for parents and spectators.

Even though some leagues across the state will allow a limited amount of spectators to attend events, district superintendents along with the Middlesex League Athletic Directors have agreed to initially not allow any spectators in any athletic events. That group unfortunately includes parents, relatives and siblings of athletes as well as friends.

In a press release that was released by the Middlesex League last week, the season will be divided into two phases Phase One and Phase Two.

The first phase, which began on Monday, will consist of practices and tryouts. Individual schools will make decisions about the timing based on the local data from each community. During the first four weeks of Phase One, school districts will gather data in regards to the trajectory of the virus and will determine if any sports can proceed to competitive play.

While athletic competitions are slated to begin on Saturday, January 2, the press release also stated that date may be pushed back to Monday, January 11. Initial guidance from the release also stated that there will be no spectators to attend any indoor competitions.

Prior to the end of the first phase, Athletic Directors and Superintendents will meet as a league to determine if competitions can occur as well as the status of spectators.

Spectators also include members of the media, as well as others, who are not staffed by the school or district’s board of health.

“A spectator is a spectator, and that unfortunately includes parents, siblings fans and members of the press,’’ said Burlington High Athletic Director Shaun Hart. “I know this is difficult on everyone. Right now, our main focus is for our student-athletes to have as much of a season as possible. With the cases rising in the area, we’re trying to be as safe as possible and we all agreed the best possible route to approach the winter season is to go small, and see what happens after we all evaluate the data after a few weeks.”

Other leagues around the state have allowed as many as two spectators per player, while the Merrimack Valley Conference won’t allow any. Some schools such as Westford Academy won’t allow basketball or hockey games to be played during the winter season while cities and towns such as Lynn and Haverhill have decided not to hold winter any athletic programs at this time.

Hart, who has fielded many emails and phone calls from displeased parents and fans in regards to the no spectator policy during the winter season, has expressed sincere sympathy while adding hopes of optimism.

“It’s a very fluid situation right now as far as (spectators) are concerned,’’ said Hart. “At the time, we (AD’s and Superintendents) just agreed that having the least amount of people inside a facility was the best and safest way to go.

“Right now, the first couple of days of the season have gone well and we hope to keep it that way,” Hart continued. “We all want to have a 10-game season with a potential for a Middlesex League Tournament. Unfortunately for that to happen, many sacrifices have to be made, and I know it’s tough on everyone. I know parents are very upset, but let’s get the kids out there and play first, and we’ll see what happens moving forward.”

An option for fans, and most notably athletes’ parents, is a lot of schools are attempting to livestream events. Most can be accessed through schools’ websites.

Most rinks in the state, including the Burlington Ice Palace, have access to Live Barn, an app one can download where games can be watched on a phone, a computer or an Ipad.

“(Paul Longley) and our staff did a tremendous job with the livestreams of games during the Fall I season,’’ said Hart. “We had a lot of parents and fans watch the games on our website, which was great to see, and we received very positive feedback. The one great thing that came from this was that we were able to livestream games from our website, and that’s going to stay even when the pandemic comes to an end.”

During the Fall I season, the Middlesex League allowed one spectator per athlete. Often, coaches and athletic directors handed out lanyards to spectators while others watched from behind the playing fields.

With the virus raging across the state over the past month, Hart is well aware that the season could come to a temporary halt at any point.

“This is why the league initially decided to have no spectators in any athletic events,’’ said Hart. “All winter events are indoors, and there’s more of a chance for transmission to spread the virus, so to be safe the league decided to implement that rule. I know it’s a very difficult time for everyone, but these aren’t normal times.”

Hart is hopeful that the spectator ban will be lifted at some point during the season.

“We want to have spectators, and we want to have fans in the stands,’’ said Hart. “Right now we just want to get the kids out there and have as much of a season as possible. The first step is for the Middlesex League to have a smooth transition from Phase One to Phase Two. If we don’t hit any roadblocks, then we’ll focus on the issue of allowing spectators into events when the superintendents, the board of health of each district and the Athletic Directors feel it’s appropriate to do so.”

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