Due to the coronavirus pandemic, three Frederick County high school basketball teams are about to play state tournament games in front of sparse crowds and no media.

The MPSSAA, which is the governing body for public high school sports in Maryland, announced Wednesday that state semifinals and championship games for boys and girls basketball teams will be played in a closed gym format.

So, when the Frederick and Middletown girls teams and the Oakdale boys team play semifinals today and Friday — and if they play state finals games on Saturday — they’ll be competing in an atmosphere unlike any other since the MPSSAA began running the state basketball tournament in 1947.

The only fans allowed to attend MPSSAA state basketball games are parents or legal guardians of participating players. The games will be closed to all media, including reporters, photographers, radio stations and TV stations. The MPSSAA will be broadcasting each game live on the NFHS Network.

Middletown athletic director Mike DeSimone said he understood why the MPSSAA opted for a closed-gym format as a precaution to keep student-athletes safe and help prevent the spread of coronavirus. But Middletown, like other Frederick County teams, usually has a huge fan turnout when its sports teams reach the state final four. Now, those supporters can’t attend.

“People want to go see their friends, that’s going to be the tough part,” said DeSimone, adding that the school had planned to send a pep bus full of fans to the game. “But our girls are going to play as hard as they can whether there are thousands or a hundred people there.”

The MPSSAA’s move is part of a nationwide trend sweeping across athletics at all levels in the United States as reported cases of coronavirus, a potentially fatal, upper-respiratory illness that can spread rapidly, continue to increase throughout the country. And it wasn’t the only move involving local teams.

Mount St. Mary’s and Hood College announced changes to their athletic events in response to the health threat on Wednesday. Mount St. Mary’s women’s basketball team will host tonight’s NEC semifinal against Fairleigh Dickinson in a closed-gym format, and Hood planned to postpone athletic practices and competitions, except for teams that are currently on spring break trips, through March 29.

Media members will be allowed to cover the Mount women’s game, and the media has been allowed to attend most other U.S. athletic events, including at the collegiate and professional levels, that have barred fans, so the MPSSAA’s decision to bar media is an outlier.

An MPSSAA release sent out Wednesday listed people who would be allowed to attend state tournament games at Towson University’s SECU Arena, where the girls tournament is held, and the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center, site of the boys tournament.

The only people permitted to be at the games are: Essential tournament staffing; participating teams, limited to the official party of 21 as detailed in the MPSSAA winter bulletin; certified athletic trainers of participating teams; game officials; parents or legal guardians of participating players and significant others of coaching staff; superintendents or superintendent designees for athletics; school principals; and school athletic directors.

Also, the MPSSAA release stated that pregame and postgame handshakes may be replaced with fist bumps, forearm bumps or elbow bumps. Coaches can agree on a form of acknowledgement.

The MPSSAA plans to provide the media with links so it can watch games online. Also, members of media will be able to conduct interviews via conference calls.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the MDDC Press Association, was surprised to learn the MPSSAA barred media from state tournament basketball games.

Snyder was sympathetic to dealing with the public health implications of large crowds at sporting events. But she pointed out how health organizations like the CDC have stressed social distance as a way of limiting the spread of coronavirus. MPSSAA state championship games don’t typically attract a large number of media members, so it isn’t clear how barring them would prevent people at games from keeping proper social distance.

“It really bothers me for the state of journalism that the first thought is, ‘Well, we will just shut media out,’” she said. “This is the capstone of so many children’s athletic seasons and careers, in many respects, and they want to see the coverage, it’s a way for our publications to connect to the community. It’s a big deal.”

She suggested that instead of barring all media, a couple of photographers and reporters could’ve been permitted to gather content that could have been sent to numerous media outlets.

“I don’t feel like they have really looked in or cared enough to reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, you’re affected by this, let’s figure out a way to ensure community coverage, a safe game and getting everyone’s needs met in a public health matter,” she said.

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