As concerns grow about the spread of the coronavirus among young people, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on Monday adopted different responses to impassioned but sharply divided calls to resume team sports.
Gov. Phil Murphy said he was confident New Jersey high school sports can safely resume this fall, calling them necessary for the mental and physical well-being of the state’s 95,000 student athletes. But his Pennsylvania counterpart, Gov. Tom Wolf, said again that school athletics should be paused until 2021.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association “will do what they want to do, and the school districts will do what they want to do,” Wolf said, noting that as a parent of former athletes, he wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing his daughters to participate even in outdoor individual sports like cross-country. “I’m giving guidance here, but I think it’s interesting to note that the Big Ten and the PAC-10, they’ve all basically said they’re not going to do fall sports, they’re not going to do it in the field of football especially.”
The comments came as the organizations that govern high school athletics in both states are preparing to announce decisions on the matter. Melissa Mertz, associate executive director of the PIAA, said Monday, “We feel fairly confident that we can get school sports up and running,” according to the Associated Press.
Murphy said the final decision for the Garden State would come from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), which could make the call this week.
“I am hugely of the opinion we need sports,” said Murphy at his regular coronavirus briefing, adding that there is no evidence that outbreaks have resulted from outdoor activities. “It needs to be responsible. And at this point, it needs to be outside.”
Weeks before the start of the year for schools, colleges and universities, officials remain worried about the virus’ spread among young adults. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, nearly 17% of cases so far in August are in people between the ages of 19 and 24, compared with 4% in April. Statewide, there are now more cases among younger age groups than among people 50 or older. In recent weeks, New Jersey health officials have said young adults were the fastest-growing group of residents testing positive for the coronavirus.
There were 384 more coronavirus cases reported in Pennsylvania on Monday, but no deaths. The state averaged 770 new cases a day over the previous week, which is down from last week, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Philadelphia, which was not included in the state’s numbers due to reporting delays, confirmed 291 new cases since Friday, and two more deaths. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has said cases have been decreasing in recent weeks.
New Jersey on Monday reported 316 new coronavirus cases and four deaths. The rate of person-to-person transmission was just over one, which Murphy said remains above the low rate of transmission reached before the state entered the second phase of its reopening in June.
Murphy was joined at his regular briefing by State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen-Passaic) and Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly (D., Bergen-Passaic), both of whom are on the executive committee of the NJSIAA. The three said it is possible for sports to be carried out safely outdoors by limiting travel and implementing distancing for spectators and athletes when not on the field. They fear that prohibiting sports would lead students to take part in activities that are less safe.
“Outdoor sports that limit travel to your local region and keep student athletes here in the state, that are organized and structured by the NJSIAA, create an environment that one, holds our student athletes accountable and responsible to their team for their actions both on and off the field,” said Sarlo, also the mayor of Wood-Ridge in Bergen County and the Wood-Ridge Devils’ youth baseball coach.
Wimberly, Hackensack High School’s football coach, said high school sports can bond people in a way that is desperately needed after months of shutdowns and protests.
“We need that locker room camaraderie to bring our communities back together,” Wimberly said.
Meanwhile, as schools across Pennsylvania continue weighing options for in-person instruction, child-care centers are facing costs of $209 million due to shutdowns and regulations put in place due to the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Human Services. That figure includes rent or mortgage payments made while the businesses were closed, payroll to rehire workers, and the expense of sanitizing centers. DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said Monday that the federal CARES Act relief bill has provided much-needed financial relief, but additional funding is required.
COVID-19 has “highlighted the fragility of the system,” Philip Sirinides, director of Penn State Harrisburg’s Institute of State and Regional Affairs, said during a call with reporters on Monday. He noted that 213 child-care centers — about 4% of the state’s total — have permanently shut their doors since March.
Also Monday, Wolf sought to reassure voters that despite opposition from President Donald Trump and mounting concerns over the U.S. Postal Service, mailing in ballots was the safest way to vote during the pandemic. In recent weeks, Trump has asserted without evidence that universal mail voting would lead to widespread voter fraud.
A new Pennsylvania law allowing any voter to cast a ballot by mail, coupled with coronavirus-stoked fears of in-person voting, led to a huge increase in mail voting during the June 2 primary — and a long wait for results. That served as a trial run for the system, Wolf said. The Department of State is working with counties that may need more help to prepare for November’s election.
“Vote from home so that you don’t have to go and stand in long lines like they did in Wisconsin or Georgia,” Wolf said. “We have the longest period of time to vote in Pennsylvania of any state in the United States to take your time and do it safely.”