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Mississippi governor limits crowds at K-12 sports games

JACKSON (AP) — As schools are opening up across Mississippi and dealing with outbreaks of coronavirus, Gov. Tate Reeves issued a new rule Friday limiting spectators at K-12 sports games, band concerts and other extracurricular activities.

No more than two people per student participating will be able to attend any school extracurricular event, and each event must also have a “dedicated safety officer” to ensure all social distancing measures are followed, Reeves said.

Although the Republican governor has expressed his support for sports and other extracurricular activities going forward this school year amid the pandemic, he said Friday during a news conference that one of his greatest concerns heading into the fall has been managing crowds.

“Let me just say this: Twenty-two players on a field is not going to overwhelm our local hospitals,” he said. “Twenty-two players on a field is not going to overly stress our health care system. However, 2,000 people in a small school’s bleachers absolutely could have that effect.”

Reeves’s new executive order, signed Friday, will stay in effect until the end of the month. He also expanded his mask mandate, which requires all residents to wear masks in stores and other public places, through August.

After that, state health officials will evaluate how districts are complying with the rules, and how they are impacting health outcomes.

Reeves said he knows that the new restrictions will not be “popular” with everyone.

“What I want all of my fellow Mississippians to think about, is when we talk about high school sports, is it for the family, or are they for the student-athlete? If in a pandemic we can protect the student-athlete and protect your families at the same time, then we will be accomplishing something,” he said.

Coaches, school officials, medical professionals and members of the press are exempt from restrictions on the number of spectators allowed. Cheerleaders and members of the band who are performing at sports games may also be allowed spectators, at each district’s discretion, Reeves said.

As schools began reopening this month, they have already had to deal with outbreaks. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said Friday 38 counties reporting coronavirus cases: 109 total cases in teachers and 69 in students statewide. In addition, 254 staff members and 489 students are quarantined because they’ve been exposed to the virus.

Dobbs reported the death of two younger people this week: One teenager with no underlying medical conditions and a young pregnant woman in her early 20s.

Still, Reeves said there is progress to be grateful for. Mississippi has been seeing a decrease in cases in the past couple of weeks – there was a 20% drop in new coronavirus cases from last Friday to this Friday, Reeves said.

The Health Department said Friday that Mississippi, with a population of about 3 million, has had at least 70,930 reported cases and at least 2,043 deaths from COVID-19 as of Thursday evening. That’s an increase of 944 confirmed cases and 32 deaths from numbers reported the day before.

The true number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.