TOPEKA — As KSHSAA wrestles with the future of fall sports, Saturday’s Shrine Bowl all-star football game in the state’s capital provided a glimpse of what a season could look like operating with COVID-19 restrictions.

Players from the East and West were required to wear masks throughout the week leading up to the game if they weren’t practicing. They also had their temperatures checked three times daily. 

On gameday, fans, media and coaches were required to wear masks at Hummer Sports Complex while socially distanced seating was implemented. The Shrine Bowl coordinated with the Shawnee County Health Department’s COVID-19 Task Force to impose attendance restrictions while signs reminding attendees of mask requirements were posted throughout the stadium.

“The fact that we got to gameday was a miracle,” Shrine Bowl Executive Director BJ Harris said. “There’s stuff people will never know about the mountains we had to move. The amount of planning and guidance from local health officials, and the risk they took on us, was tremendous.”

Saturday’s Shrine Bowl, according to the Wichita Eagle, was the third regulated football game to be played in America since the outbreak of the pandemic. The Nebraska Shrine Bowl and an all-star game between Illinois and Indiana were the other two.

“I really do think we kept kids safe as possible,” Harris said. “I think we stuck to our gameplan and hopefully they go home healthy and safe.” 

Steve Buhler, the head coach of Washburn Rural who served as the head coach of the East team, said the players got acclimated to health guidelines.

“The young men came in and had to jump through a lot of hoops,” Buhler said. “Temperature checks three times a day. Texts every morning about their health. Wearing a mask everywhere. To be honest, by the second or third day, it became routine.” 

By and large, fans at Hummer Sports Complex adhered to mask-wearing guidelines. The public address announcer at the Shrine Bowl made repeated announcements reminding fans to wear masks. 

“It’s great that the people took responsibility to try and do things in the communities they’re in,” Buhler said. “We had a lot of seniors lose things last school year because of this. I would hate for that to happen again. I hope the adults in the world will do everything possible to give these young people the opportunities they need in their high school careers.” 

According to Harris, roughly 1,700 people showed up to the Shrine Bowl which came under a cap of 2,000 set by the county health department.

“People understood the responsibility they had to come into this event and follow the rules,” Harris said. “The masks were a big part of that. Talking with local health officials, they wanted fans wearing masks and kept separated as best we can.” 

KSHSAA is in the midst of coming up with plans for a delayed, potentially shortened fall season for athletics and other activities. The move comes in response to Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order delaying the opening of schools until after Labor Day, an order that is awaiting approval from the State Board of Education.

KSHSAA previously said that any health guidelines with regards to fans at games during the regular season would be up to individual school districts coordinating with local health departments. KSHSAA would then implement its own potential fan restrictions in the postseason.

Whether Saturday’s Shrine Bowl was kept safe or led to a cluster of COVID-19 cases will be seen in the coming weeks.

“The future with football will come a week or two after this game,” Buhler said, “when they come out of this camp and we see that, hopefully, none of them have gotten sick. If we can come out of this clean, it’s proven that you can play the game of football, be in close quarters and take other precautions.” 

Adam Albertini, a running back from St. Paul High School that competed for the East, was fully on board with the restrictions.

“It was absolutely necessary and 150% the right call,” Albertini said. “We should be wearing masks. To say the restrictions impacted the game would be a lie. To say they impacted practice would be a lie. At the end of the day, you’re still playing football. Anybody who says the mask impacts that, well that’s nonsense.” 

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