Fall sports are in full swing as the 2020 Georgia High School Association varsity football season kicks off for majority of the state this week.

Much excitement surrounds football’s return, but with it comes a further venture into uncharted territory. Wide-ranging debate has taken center stage over how to safely return athletes and coaches to sports and fans to the stands in the midst of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, especially on the local level.

Dr. Gary Voccio, Northwest Georgia district public health director, said in a phone interview when the pandemic took off in March, the situation was at an “extreme condition,” as medical professionals did not know the full scale of the novel coronavirus.

Now, more information on COVID-19 is available and advancements have been made in terms of how to treat patients.

“All of the healthcare professionals here in Rome are doing an exceptional job,” Voccio said in a phone interview. “We learned quickly how to deal with this. They’ve done a remarkable job in identifying people who have COVID-19, how to treat it.”

The pandemic took its toll on sports, as the remainder of the 2020 spring season was canceled. There was no spring football, and fall teams were only allowed to begin socially-distanced conditioning in June.

Rome was scheduled to host a part of the Corky Kell Classic, which annually signifies the start of the high school varsity season. Rome would have faced Rockmart as part of a doubleheader at Barron Stadium, but in late July, Corky Kell officials decided to move the kickoff event to another location.

Voccio said Rome City Schools Superintendent Louis Byars reached out to him to discuss the potential of hosting two games at Barron.

“My recommendation was I just did not see how you could have such a mass gathering ... and not be able to control social distancing,” Voccio said. “We made no mention of the number of games. Mr. Byars, of course, and others I’m assuming, made the decision on my recommendation and I think that was the right decision to make.”

In early August, Floyd County Schools announced face coverings/masks and social distancing would be highly recommended, but not required. On Sept. 1, FCS issued new guidelines going into effect on Monday. Among those is a face covering requirement for all spectators and volunteers.

Voccio said he strong recommends people wear masks to safeguard against COVID-19. He added one difficulty is enforcement.

“We just make recommendations for everyone wear a mask, no matter what the requirement is,” Voccio said. “I strongly recommend people wear masks. There is evidence now that masks do reduce viral transmission. No mater how it’s formulated, people should wear masks.”

Voccio stressed public health makes recommendations, but to mandate is a political decision.

With summer officially coming to and end in less than three weeks’ time, flu season is around the corner, but there is growing concern of how this particular flu season could play out with COVID-19.

“At the state level, we’ve been already asked to make preparations for flu vaccinations, etc.,” Voccio said. “A flu season combined with COVID-19 is maybe more difficult for us, but we’re making preparations for it. We’re making some advancements toward it.”

The GHSA is scheduled to hold the first round of the football state playoffs right after Thanksgiving, with the state championships slated for Dec. 28-30.

Voccio said ensuring a full season will be a very difficult task.

“I hope it could be done,” Voccio said. “It’s going to have to take a lot of people with a lot of time ... to figure out to try to figure out if they can do it, but it’s going to be a difficult, uncertain task.”

Voccio said not recommending masks early on was a big mistake.

“That’s unfortunate in respect, because some people are still a little confused about wearing masks and don’t want to wear a mask,” Voccio said. “I think that was a huge mistake on our part and we are trying to change that behavior because mask wearing is very important.”

Thursday saw an increase of 2,675 positive COVID-19 tests across the state as calculated by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The average number of cases over the last week stands at almost 2,090. Georgia’s COVID cases peaked in late July.

Though numbers have been trending slightly downward, Voccio warned the virus is still highly contagious and to keep up guard.

“We still have occasional deaths, not as many as early on, but it can still kill people,” Voccio said. “We need to continue physical distancing and hand washing and mask wearing, all of which now we know are very important.”

“I think the community at large is really paying attention to this right now.”

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