Runners start the 2019 Beach to Beacon 10K road race in Cape Elizabeth. David Backer, president of the race, says Beach to Beacon officials have been discussing possibilities for a 2021 race and its board “will now factor in the new guidance from the governor’s office in its decision-making process.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sports officials across the state expressed optimism over Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement Friday that she is relaxing COVID-19 capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings.

The increased capacity limits will open the possibility for more fans to attend sporting events at the professional, collegiate and high school levels, and could have a big impact on the high school outdoor track season, possibly allowing for larger meets.

Currently, fans are not allowed at college or high school sports events.

“We may be not back to full normalcy,” said Geoff Iacuessa, the Portland Sea Dogs president and general manager, “but this is a step in the right direction.”

“I think it’s great news,” said veteran Thornton Academy track coach George Mendros. “I think everyone will have pretty close to a full season.”

Road race officials expressed great optimism for running events, which are not recommended by the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, as did the tournament director for the Live + Work In Maine Open, a Korn Ferry Tour golf event scheduled for June 21-27 at Falmouth Country Club.

Beach to Beacon 10K President David Backer, who discussed the 2021 race with the event’s board a week ago, said in a statement, “The governor’s announcement brings much needed optimism for everyone involved in summer event planning in Maine. The TD Beach to Beacon 10K Board of Directors has been considering all available information essential to making a decision about the type of event it can safely conduct in 2021. The board will now factor in the new guidance from the governor’s office in its decision-making process.”

Brian Corcoran, the Live + Work in Maine Open tournament director and CEO of Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, which is managing the event, had been planning to have multiple 100-person “micro events” spread across Falmouth Country Club for the event, which is making its Maine debut. He said of the announcement, “It’s a game-changing day for us to know we can go from a lot of restrictions to a much brighter outlook to drive our mission.”

As part of the “Moving Maine Forward” plan she unveiled Friday, Mills lifted travel restrictions into and out of the state and loosened capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings, among other easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

For indoor gatherings, capacity will increase to 50 percent on March 26 and to 75 percent on May 24. For outdoor gatherings, capacity will increase to 75 percent on March 26 and to 100 percent on May 24. Businesses currently operating at higher capacity limits because of ample space – 50-person limits indoors, 100-person limits outdoors or five people per 1,000 square feet – can continue using those standards until May 24.

Mills stressed in her announcement that Maine’s mask mandate for public places and physical distancing requirements will remain in place. And that’s why Iacuessa said you won’t see a full house at Hadlock Field once the outdoor gathering limit increases to 100 percent.

The Sea Dogs, the minor league Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, are scheduled to open their season at Hadlock on May 4.

The Portland Sea Dogs have asked the state to allow 28 percent capacity – or about 2,000 fans – for games at Hadlock Field this season, to accommodate for social distancing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Iacuessa said the Sea Dogs have sent state officials their seating plans, which include separating fans into pods throughout the stands, and are awaiting approval. He noted the Sea Dogs hope to be able to have about 2,000 fans attend games, or 28 percent of the capacity at Hadlock Field. The ballpark’s seating capacity is 7,368.

“When you look at the announcement, (someone) may think you can be at 100 percent capacity, which isn’t the case,” Iacuessa said. “You can have 100 percent capacity with social distancing. Which for us, is fine, because if you read the guidelines before (Friday), our max capacity would have been 200. So we were working with the state in hopes of getting more than 200.

“I know this is going to look different from 2019, but we’re looking forward to having fans.”

University of Maine officials still aren’t sure what the announcement means for the school’s football team, which has three home games this spring season, the last two on April 3 and April 17.

Dan Demeritt, the executive director for public affairs for the UMaine System, said school officials planned to review the  governor’s announcement.

“We are excited about the news the governor shared today and will be taking the next several days to assess the information and to update University of Maine System guidance,” he said. “We are eager to participate in a thoughtful and safe state reopening plan.”

Demeritt added that “new university guidance could have a positive impact on the experience we are able to provide” for the upcoming home football games but added “it is too soon to say for sure.”

UMaine Athletic Director Ken Ralph said the Black Bears would follow the current plan for no fans unless told otherwise.

“We’re still very grateful that we’re getting the chance to host home football games,” Ralph said. “Let’s just celebrate the fact that we’re going to get those games played with the plans we have in place. If something happens down the road that would be wonderful.”

Maine high school officials said Mills’ announcement came as encouraging news for the spring season. The 2019 spring season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020-21 fall and winter seasons have been altered, with shorter schedules, regional scheduling and no playoffs or championships.

Maine Principals’ Association officials have sent their recommended sports guidelines for the 2021 spring season to state officials and are hoping to meet soon to discuss them.

High school track and field events may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Gov. Mills’ plan to ease limits for outdoor gatherings. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said of Mills’ announcement. “I think it’s great and I hope that it has some positive outcomes that we can do some things with. We’ve sent all of our guidelines to state agencies. And we’re awaiting their review and hopefully a meeting so we can go through those and see how today’s announcement affects those guidelines.”

Dave Utterback, the Brewer High athletic director, said the biggest winner among high school sports from the announcement is outdoor track. The previous outdoor gathering limit of 100 individuals “was a non-starter for track,” he said.

Now, teams will be able to hold meets and possibly have fans, even with social distancing requirements. “I think it gets us back a little closer to normal,” he said.

But it is still unclear if the MPA will be able to hold regional or state tournaments in the spring. Currently, teams are restricted to games against opponents within their geographic area. Utterback is hoping that changes can be made to the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, after which the MPA’s guidelines are modeled, to allow those tournaments.

Mendros, the Thornton Academy track coach, isn’t so sure. “I don’t think a state meet is going to happen,” he said.

Jackie Farwell, the communications director for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email that while there are no immediate plans to update the Community Sports Guidelines, “Maine will continue to review and update the guidelines in line with public health trends. Today’s announcement does not affect community sports participants, but the adjustments to indoor and outdoor capacity limits apply to spectators of community sports events.”

The announcement could have an effect on sporting events that benefit charities. Corcoran said the loosening of gathering limits will allow for more spectators, which in turn should mean a greater benefit for the golf tournament’s primary charitable beneficiary, the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.

“My initial plan was working on having roughly 1,000 people total on the property each day and that includes everyone, volunteers, golfers, caddies, with about 600 or so spectators with reserved seating,” Corcoran said, noting that many Korn Ferry Tour events have about 15,000 spectators over four days of competition.”

Race director Bob Dunfey says the state’s plan to ease gathering limits opens the door for the Maine Marathon to have nearly a full field in October. Portland Press Herald file photo

One of Maine’s largest road races, the Maine Marathon, raised over $520,000 for charities in 2019, race director Bob Dunfey said.

Dunfey said the increased gathering limits open the door to having a nearly full race, although they would continue to follow social distancing protocols with various starting times for waves of runners. In 2019, that meant 4,000 registrants and roughly 3,330 finishers. He said he’ll have to “look for clarification” from the state, and the four municipalities the race traverses, particularly from officials in Portland, where runners start and finish.

A full race field also will allow Dunfey to fulfill his primary mission, which is raising money for a multiple charities. The 2020 race was held virtually.

“I still have beneficiaries from last year’s race that I still owe money to. We were only able to raise about a third of that amount in the virtual race,” Dunfey said. “This year we’re planning to support them the rest of the way and if we can hold a decent size event we may be able to support one more beneficiary.”

The Sea Dogs’ Iacuessa said it’s important to remember that wherever sporting events are held, COVID-19 safety protocols still have to be followed.

“There’s still a pandemic going on,” he said. “And we’re not going to sacrifice safety and try to get too many people in our ballpark. We want to make sure we have a safe environment for our fans, our players and our workers.”

UMaine’s Ralph echoed that sentiment, saying, “We’re still in a pandemic and the last thing we want to do is jump the gun and slide backwards.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

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