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What it's like viewing high school basketball in 2021

Since its inception in 1900, the Illinois High School Association has provided numerous opportunities for not only its student-athletes, but its spectators as well.

Over the past century, millions of spectators have congregated in the stands and bleachers to show support for its student-athletes in IHSA competition. In fact, the idea of a “March Madness” postseason actually originated with the IHSA and not the college basketball society associates the phrase with today.

And up until COVID-19 came around last year, fans were able to do so without many limitations or restrictions. Due to the lasting effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, fans and school athletic officials have had to adjust on the fly just as much as the student-athletes.

Ever since the IHSA decided to end its brief halt to the winter sports seasons in late January, spectators have gotten clearance to attend games in-person and inside for the first time in months. And although it’s different, fans are breathing a sigh of relief through their masks.

“I missed being able to see the kids play,” said Susan Tjelle, a Gardner-South Wilmington fan. “I was traveling all the way to Indiana just to see the boys basketball team play.”

With all 24 area high school athletic programs now in Phase 4 of the IDPH’s mitigation guidelines, each school has been granted a maximum of 50 spectators per contest. And it’s been up to each school to decide who can or cannot attend these events.

“We’re ecstatic to have the small group of fans in our stands,” Herscher athletic director Todd Schwarzkopf said. “So far the games we have hosted have gone well with people respecting the assigned seating and masks. It has definitely been a great shot in the arm for our school and our community for kids to be able to compete again.”

In order to make each home game feel like home, most local schools are giving student-athletes tickets on game days. Most schools give each player two of these tickets, although some schools have slight differences, such as Tri-Point allowing entire families of seniors only. Other smaller schools, like Milford, are able to expand their offering to as many as four tickets per player.

For the sake of safety and liability issues, most if not all area schools are making each fan fill out certification and tracing forms before each and every game and schools are generally limiting fans to the home team only.

“Having fans back has been great and they are very appreciative to be allowed to attend in-person even with the limited capacity,” Central athletic director Jeff Fenton said. “The oddest thing is only hearing cheers from one side.”

In order to have its fans properly socially distance, schools have pulled in their main bleachers, leaving spectators to sit in the higher balconies on either end of the basketball court. Furthermore, in between the junior varsity and varsity games, all of the bleachers, each chair of the benches and equipment are all sanitized before the varsity fans are allowed into the gymnasiums.

“It’s challenging to allow fans and follow all the guidelines,” Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said. “Lots of cleaning before, between, and after games. I think our fans are excited about watching basketball games again.”

Unfortunately for some of the bigger families and regular students there aren’t enough tickets to go around. As a result of such limited seating, schools are live-streaming games on various outlets for the fans that aren’t able to secure a seat in the bleachers.

Most local schools are opting to use NFHSNetwork.com to stream its games. And the one’s who aren’t have decided to go another route by using either HUDL, YouTube, or Facebook Live as respective primary streaming options. Fans are encouraged to reach out to their own individual school for more details.

As for the student-athletes themselves, they have had to make plenty of adjustments as well, most notably the elimination of starting the game with a tip-off and the biggest adjustment — playing with a mask on.

“There were a few times our trainer [Phil Taylor] had to remind us to keep the masks on,” Bishop McNamara sophomore Jaxson Provost said. “It’s something we’ll have to get used to, but at least we get to play.”

Given the difficulty of breathing with a mask on while playing, the IHSA has added one “mask timeout” per quarter to help its players get a moment to hydrate and catch their breath. It comes after the first stoppage in play with 5 minutes remaining in each quarter.

Along with having to compete in masks, players are required to maintain 6 feet apart to allow for social distancing while sitting on the bench.

For many, the limitations and changes didn’t create an ideal situation when it came to resuming winter sports, but it’s one that the players, coaches and fans will take 10 times out of 10 given it provides them with an opportunity to play, coach or watch the sports they love.

“It is so nice to see our student-athletes back practicing and competing again,” Manteno athletic director Doug Wenzel said. “Even though it’s not an ideal situation, I think the parents and family members are thankful for the opportunity to get to watch their kids play in-person.

“It’s been great to get games and people back in the gym again.”

State to expand vaccine eligibility to individuals with underlying conditions

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday that the state plans to expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to individuals of all ages who have comorbidities and underlying conditions by Feb. 25.

Speaking at a news conference in Quincy Wednesday, Pritzker said the expansion of eligibility under Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan comes as a result of increased availability of doses at the federal level.

Pritzker said the expansion of eligibility would include individuals with comorbidities as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease or heart disease.

“My administration will be working with all local public health departments to fit these higher risk individuals into their community vaccination plans,” Pritzker said Wednesday. “As quickly as we receive enough vaccine supply, we need to waste no time protecting them.”

According to a Wednesday news release from the governor’s office, areas that have “substantially completed” their existing Phase 1B population can move ahead with the vaccine expansion earlier than Feb. 25 at the determination of local public health officials and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

As of Wednesday, Illinois had administered over 1.48 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, equaling 69 percent of the 2.1 million doses allocated to the state thus far. A total of 62,923 doses were administered across the state Tuesday.

Pritzker said the state has secured a 5 percent increase in vaccines received per week from the federal government, and he expressed optimism that the state would continue to receive more vaccine doses as a result of increased production.

“I have implored the president and his administration to get vaccines flowing at a higher rate, and they’ve been responsive,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker praised President Joe Biden’s administration for invoking the Defense Production Act and said the White House also plans to launch a new Community Health Center vaccination program in the coming weeks to direct vaccines to populations “hardest hit” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new single-dose vaccine by Johnson and Johnson could also be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in a hearing scheduled for Feb. 26. If approved, the company projects that 100 million additional doses could be made available to states by the end of June.

While production of existing vaccines continues to expand at the federal level, Pritzker urged “enormous patience” as the state works to build vaccination sites and expand its administration efforts.

“I wish I could make enough vaccine magically appear so that we could get all of our Illinoisans vaccinated right now,” Pritzker said. “That will happen over the next coming months, but today we all have to exercise patience as more vaccine is being produced.”

The state announced Wednesday that 134 additional vaccination sites have been opened across the state since Feb. 4, bringing the statewide total to 517 locations. Eligible residents can search for a vaccination site closest to them and make an appointment at coronavirus.illinois.gov.

Some state lawmakers who have offered criticisms of the Pritzker administration’s handling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in recent weeks praised the eligibility expansion announcement Wednesday.

Senator Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest, said she was “relieved” by the governor’s announcement.

“We must take care of our most vulnerable people,” Morrison said in a statement Wednesday. “Those in the developmentally disabled community are presented unique challenges that put their lives in danger each day.”

Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, described the governor’s announcement as “a light at the end of a very long tunnel” for Illinois residents in need of a vaccine.

“I hope Gov. Pritzker will create a more open dialogue with the Legislature to build upon this improvement, to increase effectiveness of vaccine distribution, and to ensure the state is fair and equitable to all in need,” McConchie said in a statement.

The Senate Health Committee will meet virtually at noon Thursday regarding the state’s vaccination efforts. IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike and other public health officials have been called to testify.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

County e-waste collection will be up and running soon

The Kankakee County Board finalized its agreement Tuesday with Belson Steel Center to provide an e-waste recycling location for county residents.

The board unanimously approved the intergovernmental agreement with communities in the county that are served by the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency (KRMA), which represents residents in Aroma Park, Bourbonnais, Bradley and Kankakee. The Village of Manteno is also part of the recycling program.

“It’s not up and running yet, but it’s going to be up and running very soon,” said Ben Wilson, county transportation manager. “… We’ll do an announcement.”

The county will pay Belson Steel Center $95,000 a year in the first two years of the agreement. For 2021, it has been prorated to $83,287 as of Feb. 15. For years 3 to 7 of the agreement, parties will utilize 2020 census data for participating municipalities to create a fee schedule amount based upon cost per resident.

“We’re shooting for March 1 to have a rollout,” Board Chairman Andy Wheeler said. “That will give us some time. I’m working on a brand name for this somehow to incorporate the unique nature of this regional partnership. And this what it really is, a regional partnership, with up to 17 municipalities and the county and KRMA and everybody together.”

Once the program is up and running, residents can take e-waste to Belson Steel Center at 1685 N. Illinois Route 50 in Bourbonnais and drop off the items from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

Residents will have to show proof of residency in one of the participating municipalities when dropping off the e-waste at Belson.

The board also approved a resolution, authorizing the board chairman to enter into IGAs with the 17 other municipalities in Kankakee County. So far, Chebanse has their own collection program and will not participate, and the Village of Limestone also opted out.

The municipalities can sign up for $1.39 per resident, per year. For example, a community of 1,000 residents would pay $1,390 to participate. Herscher will participate, and Wheeler said he is working on getting the dozen or so others to sign up as well.

“One of the benefits is environmental in terms, hopefully, it will dissipate some of the dumping in the rural areas as well, too,” board member Steve Hunter said. “Hopefully, that will have a positive impact on that situation.”

Other communities that can participate once an agreement has been signed are Bonfield, Buckingham, Cabary, Essex, Grant Park, Hopkins Park, Irwin, Limestone, Momence, Reddick, St. Anne, Sun River Terrace and Union Hill.

A resident from a community that opts out can still drop e-waste off at Belson, but a fee would apply.

“We’re hoping they go back to their village and say, ‘Why did I have to pay when no one else has to pay?,’” Wilson said. “Ideally, for our county, if everyone is involved in this, it makes the most sense for everyone. We’re trying to structure it to encourage those communities to participate. We think it’s a very reasonable cost on a per-user standpoint.”

Wilson said they’re hopeful by year three of the program, they can get the per-resident fee down to $1.

The following items will be accepted at Belson from eligible residents: computers and small servers, computer monitors, televisions, printers, fax machines and scanners, DVD players, recorders and VCRs, video game consoles, digital converter boxes, cable receivers, and satellite receivers, electronic keyboards, electronic mice and portable music players.

Also, some e-waste that residents drop off could earn additional money if it has some precious metal in it.

“There is that opportunity,” Wheeler said.