The Georgia High School Association announced Wednesday group-size restrictions for fall sports would be lifted and locker rooms and showers could now be used for football, provided they were sanitized before and after use.

The lifting of restrictions comes as football practice and the acclimatization period begins Monday, July 27. Other fall sports can begin their practices on Saturday, Aug. 1, the same day football pads will be allowed at practice.

“We’re doing our best to stay on schedule and we’ve worked through a slow, measured process to move forward as safely as we possibly can,” Robin Hines, Executive Director of the GHSA, said in a phone interview. “It’s hard to have football practice if you don’t allow the team out there to practice. When you’re outside, it’s certainly easier to socially distance whenever possible.”

The mandate provides that players be able to socially distance within the locker room and highly recommends the use of face masks. Otherwise, Hines said players would need to “dress in stages.”

A looming question regarding how to keep athletes and coaches safe during return to play is how to keep health the priority. Hines said while the cost of testing far exceeds feasibility, screening and questionnaires would continue.

Another large question mark is what crowd sizes at events would look like, including social distancing and/or mask requirements. Hines said it will be up to local school districts to do what they feel is necessary.

“The situation in Rome may be different than what it is in Jeff Davis County or Fulton County,” Hines said. “What we ask is that those local districts get together with their local health departments and healthcare professionals. Look at the guidance put out by the health departments ... and make their own decision. Certainly something the local communities could do a whole lot better than a statewide broad-brush decision could do.”

In the event of positive COVID-19 tests, Hines said decisions regarding that would also be left to local level. Hines added schools could require a negative test before giving the green light for an athlete or coach to return.

Hines said the GHSA is “cautious optimistic and excited” about the upcoming fall sports season.

“There’s a lot of good things that go along with this,” Hines said. “The social, mental and physical well-being of our kids and the things they get out of athletics is certainly important. We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate the risk that is there; however, there will always be a risk.”

Hines said every family has a decision to make in regard to what’s best for their specific situation.

“They just have to look at their specific situation and measure the risk versus the benefits,” Hines said. “It’s the same thing with the schools as well. If there are reasons to why a school feels like they can’t participate, then we will certainly allowed that postponement to happen (and) play the game later. If they’re not able to make the thing up, it could be a no-contest and the regions decide who their playoff teams are.”

Football scrimmages can take place starting Friday, Aug. 21, in the lead up to the regular season kicking off on Friday, Sept. 4. All other fall sports can proceed with their normal schedules.

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