Florida delays high school football amid coronavirus surge

Football (Brett Carlsen, 2018 Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida's burgeoning coronavirus crisis is forcing its high schools to delay the start of their football and other fall sports seasons, a reversal aimed at quelling a revolt that could have pitted urban counties against their rural counterparts.

The Florida High School Athletic Association's board voted 11-4 Thursday night to push the first day of practices from Monday to Aug. 24 with games starting no earlier than mid-September instead of mid-August. The decision came as Florida has experienced a sharp increase in coronavirus deaths over the past two weeks, including another 136 recorded Friday as the state's total confirmed cases topped 400,000.

This was a reversal from earlier in the week when the same board voted 10-5 to start the season on time. That decision had angered administrators and coaches in Miami-Dade and other hard-hit urban counties as they could not safely start on time and their teams would likely not have been eligible to compete for state titles. The Miami-Dade school board threatened to withdraw from the association if the decision wasn't reversed.

Many of north Florida's rural counties have been lightly hit by the pandemic and some of their coaches wanted to start the seasons on time. Other affected sports include cross country, golf, swimming and girls volleyball.

“There are no good answers here,” Lee County school board member Chris Patricca said during Thursday's online meeting, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “There is no perfect scenario where we can conduct football safely in the state of Florida and still conduct every other season of sport in the state of Florida. We have to be agile. We have to make decisions that we’ve never had to make before because we’re in a circumstance that we have absolutely never been in before.”

Riley Clements, a senior defensive end for Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale, said he personally feels safe playing football, but understands the delay.

“I was disappointed to hear practice was pushed back, but as always things out of our control are going to pop up, so we just need to control the controllable and do our part to be ready for the season,” said Clements, 18.

Dr. Ron Saff, an allergist and asthma specialist in Tallahassee and board member of Florida Physicians for Social Responsibility, said Florida high schools should not have sports while the coronavirus spreads.

Even a locker room meeting could infect a team and staff because air conditioners can blow respiratory droplets. There is also the danger that some players might be “asymptomatic super-spreaders” — someone who feels fine but is passing the virus to others by not wearing a mask. He said Gov. Ron DeSantis should make masks mandatory.

“Now is not the time for high school sports in Florida. We are one of the epicenter states due to Governor DeSantis' deadly mismanagement,” Saff said.

DeSantis has defended his decision not to mandates masks statewide, saying that should be left up to the counties and cities because what is needed in Miami may not be needed in rural towns.

The state health department has recorded 855 COVID-19 deaths over the past week, an average of 122 per day — only Texas has had a worse week. Texas has been recording about 130 deaths per day, but it has a third more people than Florida. Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota announced Friday that one his staff members, 66-year-old Gary Tibbetts, died Friday of the virus.

Florida's leading causes of death, heart disease and cancer, each kill about 125 per day on average. After coronavirus, the three deadliest infectious diseases, flu/pneumonia, AIDS and viral hepatitis, kill about 10 per day combined.

The state recorded 12,444 new confirmed cases Friday, bringing the total since March 1 to 402,312. The total number of dead from the disease is now 5,768. As of Friday morning, 9,210 people were hospitalized in Florida with coronavirus, a 3% drop from Thursday.

Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 8 out of 10 Florida voters want masks to be mandatory in public, 7 of 10 believe the virus's spread is out of control and 6 of 10 believe DeSantis reopened the state's economy too quickly. About 60% believe it would be unsafe to reopen the schools.

DeSantis has seen a sharp drop in popularity since the outbreak began, with 52% disapproving of his job performance compared with 41% approving. In April, Quinnipiac found 53% approved of DeSantis' performance compared with 33% disapproval.

DeSantis visited President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday afternoon.

The poll of 924 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2%.


Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak