Editor's note: This is the first of an ongoing series called, "Friday Night Lights Unmasked," where we will continue to monitor the health protocols put into place by the South Carolina High School League and how schools follow them.
MYRTLE BEACH — The desperate yells of a mask-less father could still be heard, looking to somehow shift a 28-0 halftime deficit by berating a referee some 300 feet away.
The distraction of iPhone screens was still prevalent, with teens more interested in creating TikTok videos and Instagram stories than watching Kyle Watkins wreak havoc against a listless Conway defense.
And unlike a shopping trip to the grocery store, faces for the most part could be seen in full — masks seemingly an afterthought and social distancing mostly a pipe dream on this night at Carolina Forest High School.
It was Friday Night Lights, the pre-2020 edition — where playing high school football was visibly more important than following clear health protocols set forth by South Carolina High School League, rules agreed to by Horry County Schools.
COVID-19 was the opponent that couldn’t be measured by points on the scoreboard — but it’s the one that has already won on four high school campuses across Horry County, with new coronavirus cases added at additional schools every week.
“Because of the ease by which this virus can be transmitted, event hosts are required to satisfactorily demonstrate their ability to comply with COVID-19 procedures and protocols for preventing disease spread,” said the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“It is also individuals’ responsibilities to protect themselves and others by adhering to the public health actions that are essential when being in public: wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from others, frequent hand-washing, and staying home altogether if sick.”
According to the SCHSL, those school districts that are choosing to play this football season agreed to the following safety protocols:
- All staff, spectators and anyone associated with an auxiliary group must wear a face covering at all times.
- All spectators and anyone associated with an auxiliary group must maintain 6 feet social distancing at all times during the event. (Consideration should be given to families from the same household)
- Hand sanitizer stations should be set up at all entrances and exits.
- Consider unidirectional foot traffic flow — entering one portal or door and exiting through another.
- Provide physical guides, such as placards, tape on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls, to ensure that individuals remain at least 6 feet apart when waiting in line to enter or exit a facility.
- Spectators should not be able to cross from one side of a venue to the other during the contest to limit communities from interaction.
- Congregating in groups inside a venue is not allowed. Any area that cannot be monitored to ensure social distancing can be maintained should be a restricted area.
At Carolina Forest on Friday night, all but one of these protocols were broken, including a rowdy home student section that had their face coverings strapped around their necks or shoved below their chins for the entire first half — despite repeated reminders from the stadium announcer.
Cheerleaders lined both sidelines, with nary a mask in sight, while coaches also chose to mainly yell without a mask that would protect those around them from the particles that come from their collective mouths.
According to the SCHSL, coaches are required to wear masks while on site of a sporting event, covering both the nose and mouth.
With masks not being worn by players, coaches and cheerleaders, the risk of infection rises exponentially, according to DHEC.
And with COVID-19 testing not currently required for high school athletes, operating on a self-reporting system instead, the state agency has clear recommendations.
“Everyone who is out in public be tested at least once a month and potentially more frequently if they are unable to follow preventive actions of mask wearing, social distancing, and avoiding crowded areas,” DHEC said.
Most athletes are enrolled in Horry County Schools’ “hybrid” mode of instruction, meaning they are in brick-and-mortar classes twice per week — putting them in direct contact with other students.
Showing symptoms of infection can take anywhere between 2 to 14 days, although identifying where the athlete was exposed isn’t an exact science.
“DHEC collects data on sites where cases may have been exposed to the virus, but given the wide range of days that the exposure may have happen, it is difficult to identify the exact site where it happen for each individual.”
Beyond Carolina Forest's gridiron, concession areas fell in line with the overall disregard for both masks and social distance, with groups of students chasing each other around near food, screaming at one another. Two food trucks right under the Carolina Forest scoreboard also featured lines that were reminiscent of years gone by, people barely 6 inches apart, much less 6 feet.
“Congregating in groups inside a venue is not allowed. Any area that cannot be monitored to ensure social distancing can be maintained should be a restricted area,” the SCHSL said.
This was Carolina Forest’s second home game of the season, although last week was dampened due to severe weather that kept many fans at home, making Friday night the first time that the new rules were truly put to the test.
The Panthers weren’t the only ones to struggle with the “new normal,” and our entire team was spread across Horry and Georgetown counties to take in how well schools were able to adhere to the new rules, including some that did ace the test:
Socastee at St. James
By Hannah Strong, firstname.lastname@example.org
St. James High fans trickled into its home stadium Friday night, wearing masks and filling the stadium while practicing social distancing.
A student section in the end zone was set up with spaced-out foldable chairs.
Taking on the Socastee Braves, known as the Battle of 707, fans sat in groups of four and five on the home side. On the visiting side, a section of students were not socially distant as they cheered on the Braves.
The concession stand sold prepackaged food.
Only four people were allowed in the restroom facilities at one time.
All tickets, which are required to be purchased online this season, were sold out except for student tickets.
For those on the field, Principal Vann Pennell was seen reminding cheerleaders about keeping their masks on, something they complied with for nearly the entire game.
South Florence at North Myrtle Beach
By Richard Caines, email@example.com
Excitement filled the air Friday night as North Myrtle Beach High School held its senior night before a sold-out crowd. 900-1000 digital tickets were gone by Thursday morning.
The school took many precautions for COVID-19 such as setting up bleachers for the marching band in one end zone to make it easier for fans to social distance in the home side of the stadium.
Lines for the concession stand and food trailers were well-spaced out and moved smoothly. The school did a good job with signage and clearly marked entrance and exit locations.
Fans who attended the game adhered to the rules in place for the most part, but the wearing of masks was lacking.
Social distancing in the student section was nonexistent with many shedding their masks by the start of the third quarter. The wearing of masks was not automatic around other pockets of fans as well, although the PA announcer urged them to multiple times.
Myrtle Beach at Georgetown
By Danny Kelly, firstname.lastname@example.org
Both the home and away sides had people gathered in clusters in the stands that exceeded the household requirement to sit closer than 6 feet. Some fans had their masks down in the stands. Cheerleaders and dance team members went long periods of time without wearing masks, while coaches were also spotted with their masks down at times.
Fans also disregarded social distancing while at concessions, despite being told by the PA announcer multiple times to put on masks and to get off the fence that borders the field.
The game did come under the allotted 1,232 fans in the stadium, which normally holds 4,328.
Loris at Waccamaw
By Jay Rodriguez, email@example.com
The mask game for Waccamaw students was on point, despite dropping the game, 12-7. Almost every student-aged attendee was wearing a mask, while families were sitting in bundles and separated by signage on the stands.
Signs throughout the property were posted about wearing a mask, and the announcer stressed the importance of wearing a mask, saying if attendees do not abide, they may lose the privilege of playing organized sports.
Concession stand volunteers at Waccamaw High School, whether they were collecting money or preparing food, were all wearing masks Friday night.
However, this reporter entered the stadium without a mask and stayed the duration of the game without wearing one. Aside from a few side-eyed looks from law enforcement, no one approached him to put a mask on. The reporter did stay socially distanced from all for the safety of himself and those around him.