The scene at Lake City High School Friday evening for the first football game of the season looked – surprisingly – much like business as usual.
Old-timers sat in lawn chairs or on the first row of bleachers so they didn’t have to hike up the stairs. Groups of teens gathered along the fence to dish gossip and flirt with classmates. A large pack of students congregated in the cheering section – shoulder-to-shoulder – screaming and making as much noise as they could for the home team.
Youngsters rolled down the hill or played touch football in the side field. The “cool kids” stood a little farther back in the darkness once the stadium lights took full effect.
Junior varsity players wore their jerseys and puffed their chests out with pride. Cheerleaders stood atop their boxes along the sidelines, encouraging players and fans alike.
And school administrators roamed the sidelines and stands, scouting out potential problems or greeting familiar faces.
If the occasional face mask didn’t give a reminder, it was almost like the pandemic that has claimed nearly 185,000 American lives wasn’t still going on.
The 8½x11 sign at the front gate said, “Masks and Social Distancing Required.”
While that may have been the rule to get in, there was little compliance and no enforcement once family and friends made their way inside.
Even several of the police officers there for security weren’t masked up.
It was nobody’s fault, really. Lake City staff put yellow “caution” tape on every other bleacher to help families spread out. But since the “risk level” for Kootenai County from Panhandle Health District dropped to moderate earlier in the day, most folks went without protection.
“I’m surprised,” Lake City principal Deanne Clifford said about the lack of masks in the stands. “Just because, that is something that I’ve just been doing and that’s the mindset I have. But I know that everyone has their own feelings about this, and I’m not going to be the police officer of this.
“I think we had a little bit of a fumble, because we had a change in status, and it’s a little confusing for people.”
Some frustration was evident, though.
“I can’t supersede all of the information that’s going out from Panhandle Health or the county or the state, or the governor,” Clifford said. “You know, I can only try to do my best to educate and so that’s what we’re going to do – we’re just going to educate.”
Estimates had attendance near 1,500.
In Bonner County, limits for gatherings are still in place, so the crowd at newly refurbished War Memorial Stadium to see Sandpoint host Post Falls was held to 650 fans, mostly family members of players.
At Lake City, Clifford was encouraged many fans sat in family groups, but recognized the potential to “coach up” some of the student body.
“I think people are being really responsible, but we do have some, you know, some growing to do and some learning. So I can’t wait to get them into school so we can get the message across.”
Clifford said the goal is to get everyone – students, parents and the community at large – to buy into the program and keep things going now that they’ve started.
“We really want to make sure our kids are safe and we want to continue to play football.
“These guys have worked hard and they deserve to be able to play football.”
Sigh of relief
Lake City athletic director Jim Winger said all things considered, he thought Friday night was a success – and a relief.
“I’m feeling pretty good, I think,” he said. “We had a good turnout, we’re a little under 1,500. I think things are going pretty good.”
He admitted to being nervous beforehand.
“It’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve done in 22 years,” he said.
“You know, from the district office officials to school officials to parents to, you know, even the players, we’ve spent a lot of time at it to try to get to this point. We’ve been going for, you know, three weeks now and we’ve been taking temperatures – every athlete, every day – and we haven’t had – knock on wood – a high temperature yet.”
For many folks, the return of Friday night football in the fall means catching up with folks they haven’t seen over the summer while cheering on the local team.
This year, though, it means quite a bit more.
With the pandemic curbing normal activity since March, for many this was the first time in such a large social gathering – including members of the media. Most folks didn’t seem to have any apprehension about the relatively packed bleachers.
Danielle Buettner, who wore a mask, was there with her father to watch her nephew play. They sat on the hillside in front of the grandstand.
“Honestly, I kind of feel like it’s up to each person,” she said about wearing a mask. “I’m not a stickler for it. I’m doing it for myself and for my dad too, kind of. I see him every once in a while, so to keep him safe.”
Asked if she felt concerned about being surrounded by such a large gathering of folks without masks, she said, “Not really, no.”
Keri Stanley was watching the game with his kids and a few other folks along the path that leads to the bleachers and wasn’t wearing a mask. He said it was the most people he’s been around since the pandemic started.
“I’m staying away from everyone and just here with my family,” he said. He indicated he was “a little bit, but not overly,” concerned being out in public right now.
Bennett Ford is a junior at Lake City. He was hanging out in the jam-packed student section, where few were masked up. He was just happy to be back amongst friends to start the school year.
“Oh yeah, it’s a blast,” he said. “We’re having a great time.”
Navi Salisbury helped manage the concession stand Friday night. They sold drinks and prepackaged food and candy, and she said things went off without a hitch – other than the prepackaged nacho chips not showing up on time.
“I mean, our patrons didn’t really always wear their mask, but everybody in the booth wore their masks and their gloves like they were told,” she said.
Still, just getting on the field seemed like a victory after everything it’s taken to get there.
“I feel so happy for all these kids, these coaches, their families, to be able to get out here and compete and do it safely,” Lake City coach Brian Fulp said after beating Lakeland 26-20. “You know, we’ve been telling them, you got to play every game like you think it’s going to be your last because this year, it could be.”
“You know that first roar of the crowd was kind of like, ‘Wow, where’s that been?’ Oh that’s, that’s pretty cool,” Winger said. “That’s kind of why we do this and then watch the kids enjoy it and to me, I don’t think I’ve ever known – I’ve been here since (Lake City) opened and I’ve never seen people more giddy. And just, like, thrilled. And that’s been cool.”
“This feels so good to be back out here with the kids, and with our community,” Clifford said. “It feels so good. … We’re just grateful. We could be somewhere else where we don’t have this opportunity.”
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