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Pa. Health Secretary: no fans at sports games anytime soon, credits uptick in new COVID cases to college and university settings

  • Sam Dunklau
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference on March 16, 2020.

 Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference on March 16, 2020.

(Harrisburg) — State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine is holding firm to recommendations against fans gathering at sports events this fall.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic rages across the country, both the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to play this weekend. Both will play away games at Washington and New York respectively, but in-person attendance will not be allowed at either game.

That’s not to mention the Friday night football games at high schools, and other sports already in progress across the commonwealth that are allowed to have fans according to guidance from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.

While the state legislature and Gov. Wolf remain at odds over codifying who has the final say on fan attendance and virus mitigation efforts, Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said her recommendation hasn’t changed.

“At this time, given current circumstances, we feel it is in the public’s best interest not to have fans for those football games,” she said in reference to pro football.

Levine said the risk of community spread is influencing that decision. Right now, only 250 people may gather for an outdoor event in Pennsylvania, while just 25 are allowed at indoor events.

“The governor strongly feels and I strongly recommend that we do not put people at risk in terms of putting them together in congregate settings,” Levine said.

“We would need to see a substantial reduction in terms of the amount of community spread in Pennsylvania to consider changing the outdoor guidance.”

On Friday, Pennsylvania reported more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases, and 17 more deaths from the disease. Health experts like Levine point out a significant source of those new cases is young college-age people, between 19 and 24 years old.

Cases among that group have varied widely by region, but by and large have been rising in the past month. Regional data from Pa.’s health department shows between 18 and 69 percent of new cases in September so far are showing up in that college-age demographic.

In light of that trend, Levine said students at colleges and universities must take responsibility for keeping coronavirus spread down.

At the state’s largest school, that effort doesn’t appear to be going well.

Nearly 500 students have tested positive for COVID-19 at Penn State in just the last few days. Centre County, where Penn State is, reported more than 130 new COVID-19 cases in just the last day.

Despite that fact, Penn State President Eric Barron says there’s “no need” to scale back in-person learning on campus. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, meanwhile, maintains it is leaving learning format decisions to each of the 14 individual schools.

Dr. Levine said students who are partying without regard to public health rules need to fix the problem they’re creating.

“We want to empower the young people. You just can’t talk at them,” she said. “You have to work with the young people and empower them to make the right decisions, and so that’s what we’re [the state health department] going to work to do.”

At the same time, student athletics at the state’s high schools continue to be a political flashpoint for both Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature.

Though the Wolf administration has repeatedly said individual schools are allowed to make sports determinations and guidelines, the GOP-led House and Senate approved a bill this week that would legally give schools the exclusive say on whether to allow sports and allow fans to attend.

Wolf has said he’ll veto the bill once it reaches his desk. House Republicans say they’ll mount an override effort if that happens.

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