LNP-PAB-090820-TOM-WOLF-13.JPG

Governor Tom Wolf speaks at a press conference hosted by the United Way of Lancaster on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

THE ISSUE

“Coronavirus-related crowd restrictions for both indoor and outdoor events were loosened Tuesday by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who called the shift ‘a gradual adjustment to our lives as we learn how we can do things safely’ until there’s a vaccine for the virus or cure for the disease,” The Associated Press reported in a story that appeared in Wednesday’s LNP | LancasterOnline. But, amid the ongoing pandemic, there are no guarantees the changes will be permanent. “We will closely monitor cases and outbreaks and if our case investigation and contact tracing efforts determine that events or gatherings are the source of an outbreak, we can and will dial back these new limits,” state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine added.

We must find safe and gradual ways to return to some of the things we did before COVID-19 brought so much heartache and seismic disruption to our lives.

One reason we need to find a balance between safety and normalcy is that we simply don’t know how long the virus will continue to be a threat within the United States.

Despite what optimists and those with political motivations might say, we don’t know when a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be ready. And when it’s ready, we don’t know how long it will take to manufacture and administer the vaccine to every American. Or what percentage of Americans will embrace the science behind the vaccine.

We’d like the vaccine and the protection it will bring sooner rather than later, of course. Everyone would. But with so many question marks, we need to brace ourselves for the possibility that it might not be until sometime in the middle of 2021. Or even later.

And that’s why Gov. Wolf — who has done a good job of protecting Pennsylvanians’ health but a decidedly mixed job of being transparent as he rolled out key parts of of his emergency plan — is correct when he says we should make gradual adjustments toward a new normalcy.

But Levine is correct, too, when she says we must understand that these steps come with caveats.

“Public health and safety are our first concern and will always remain as such,” she said.

As they should.

The changes for crowd restrictions from the Wolf administration represent a step away from the former guidelines of no more than 250 people at outdoor gatherings and no more than 25 at indoor gatherings.

Those commonsense guidelines have, for months, been the subject of great consternation and debate for some fans and supporters of high school, college and pro sports. They have also weighed heavily on those who are ultimately in charge of the crowds at sports venues.

“School districts have the authority to create their own COVID-19 health and safety plans, but many have stayed within Wolf’s 25/250 standard,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Mike Gross reported last week. “Others have allowed limited spectators, but generally fewer than the new guidelines would permit.”

The 25/250 guidelines have also been the subject of a court battle. In mid-September, U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV “ruled against the state’s size limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, saying they violate citizens’ constitutional rights to assemble,” the AP reported.

But on Oct. 1, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Pennsylvania could restore its crowd restrictions, putting a hold on Stickman’s ruling during the appeal.

After that latest ruling, Wolf foreshadowed his move away from the rigidity of the 25/250 restrictions.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re being reasonable, realistic about how we do things,” Wolf said, according to the AP.

“Reasonable” and “realistic” should be the aim of everyone now.

The Wolf administration’s new guidelines feature sliding scales that will require those operating sports venues, fairs, festivals and concerts to do some math. This is how the AP summarized it:

— “For indoor events where the venue can hold up to 2,000 people, the limit will be 20% of the maximum capacity. For larger venues — with capacities up to 10,000 — that percentage is lowered to 15%. For the largest sites, holding more than 10,000, the limit is 10% of capacity. No venue will be allowed to hold more than 3,750 people.”

— “Outdoor events use the same three categories, allowing up to 25% for sites that can hold up to 2,000 people, up to 20% of capacity for 2,001-10,000 venues and 15% with a cap of 7,500 where more than 10,000 people would otherwise be able to fit.”

And those are just the basics. The fine print of the new guidelines, according to LNP’s Gross, includes references to occupancy loads and voluntarily moving into lower capacity brackets.

“That sounds to me like they’re telling you you can fudge your capacity,’’ Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Lombardi told Gross.

Of course, this isn’t just about high school sports.

Penn State University officials indicated that, despite Wolf's new guidance, they still will not permit fans at Beaver Stadium for Nittany Lion football games this fall. But colleges might use the new guidance in planning for winter sports seasons, which include basketball and wrestling.

And, of course, the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers are playing pro football games in the commonwealth this fall. Actual crowd noise can now be part of those contests.

As we strive for a new normalcy, though, we wish more energy and resources were being directed to the needs of public education, child care and social services — among other areas — during this ongoing crisis that has no end in sight. It frustrates us to see so much focus on something that’s a want, not a need.

But we get it. This is America. We love and even worship our sports. (While we’re focusing today on sports, we also know this is a bottom-line issue for other businesses that rely on drawing numbers of people.)

We hope things work out for the best with Wolf’s new crowd guidance. We hope it can be implemented in a safe fashion that doesn’t unnecessarily threaten the public health at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in parts of Pennsylvania and other adjacent states.

If we take a commonsense approach, guided by health experts, when it comes to sports, everyone can be a winner.