COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Nearly 1 in 6 public school districts in Ohio have received variances to the state’s COVID-19 sports order.

In all, 118 variances to the order Gov. Mike DeWine signed Aug. 19 have been approved as of last Friday, including variances from 101 public school districts, individual high schools and private schools, as well as a handful of youth sports clubs and professional organizations.

NBC4 obtained the approvals and requests from the Ohio Department of Health via public records request.

The vast majority of the variances are for high school football stadiums. Others are for school soccer stadiums and other fields, and a few are for gymnasiums.

Spectator variances have to be approved by both ODH and a facility’s local health department. The state sports order limits outdoor spectators to 1,500 or 15% of fixed seat capacity, whichever number is fewer. For indoor facilities, it’s the lesser of 300 or 15%.

Schools have mainly requested variances to increase the number of family members who can attend games to support players, cheerleaders, coaches, band members and other participants. Many schools based their specific capacity numbers on a certain number of tickets per participant.

Schools’ requests range from simple emails to multipage documents with detailed explanations and photos of facilities.

Arcadia Local Schools in rural northwest Ohio wrote a two-paragraph request asking for just over 200 total attendees (17.7% capacity). Meanwhile, Poland Local Schools outside Youngstown submitted an eight-page request that included thorough procedures regarding fans, concessions and contact tracing. They got a variance for 983 spectators (17.1%).

How schools increase capacity

Schools have been able to accommodate the extra number of socially distanced spectators mostly by seating fans on grass areas, extra bleachers or a stadium’s track.

While most schools increased their 15% capacity into the high teens, 20s or 30s with variances, some schools have been able to go well into the 40s, 50s or even 90s because of grass space where fans can just set up folding chairs.

Fayetteville-Perry Local Schools in rural southwest Ohio, for example, got a variance for 94% capacity because portable bleachers and open space allowed them to go from 48 fixed seats to 300 total “seats” while keeping fans socially distant.

Fayetteville-Perry Local Schools’ variance request illustrates how its football stadium can expand socially distanced seating by putting spectators on the track and grass. The district was approved for 300 spectators (94% of the stadium’s capacity).

This is an example of what state health officials called the “Small Schools Dilemma,” according to internal emails. The crux being that 15% capacity of a small school’s football stadium cannot reasonably accommodate enough family members who are attending on behalf of dozens — sometimes hundreds — of participants for both teams.

Cedar Cliff Local Schools, enrollment 613, brought up this dilemma in its variance request. The district said its football stadium could only hold one socially distanced spectator per participant because of the 15% rule. Cedar Cliff got a variance for 300 attendees (27% capacity), which allows two spectators per participant.

A rare example of a high school stadium that exceeds the 1,500-spectator limit while staying under 15% capacity is Massillon City Schools outside Canton. The school’s 17,000-capacity football stadium received a variance for 1,776 fans (10.4%) because the stands have “ample seating” for social distancing, according to Interim Health Director’s Lance Himes’ approval.

“We have been successful, with the protocols that have been put in place, at operating sports and being able to do so while minimizing the spread of the virus,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said during his and DeWine’s Thursday coronavirus briefing.

A provision was added to the order on Friday that requires venues to comply with local inspectors who visit event sites and make sure the sports order and health protocols are being followed.

“These inspectors will be able to have the authority to terminate the competition if they’re not following the spectator and participant rules,” Husted said.

Seven variances as of last Friday have been approved for youth or professional sports events. A youth soccer club in Belpre and youth football clubs outside Dayton and Cincinnati got variances. And as has been reported, the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course have received variances.

The largest number of spectators allowed at a sporting event under the order has been 6,000. Only six events have gotten that approval: two Browns and Bengals games each and two race weekends at Mid-Ohio.

Rules for spectators under the order:

  • Stay home if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
  • Socially distance from everyone except family and household members
  • No congregating before or after events
  • Wear a face covering at all times if able and over 10 years old

Read the full sports order here.