If the Indiana High School Athletic Association can remain full speed ahead amid the COVID-19 pandemic in offering a full menu of high school sports this fall — an intention that it declared on Wednesday — then it appears game officials won’t be getting in the way, at least not around the Warsaw area.

Jimmy Arnett, first-year president of the St. Joseph Valley Officials Association, and Lou Brown, who presides over the Northern Indiana Officials Association, each say there has been minimal opting out for the coming season among their respective memberships.

Arnett heads an association with close to 300 members, while Brown’s group has more than 100.

“We do have one football crew, with one member over 70 (years old), that has chosen not to work this year,” Arnett said this week, “but that’s the only one I know of so far. Now, there might be individual members who have chosen not to work, but nobody I know of for sure.”

“We’ve had a few members who have concerns,” Brown said Wednesday, “but the ones I’ve talked to are all ready to go. They want to be there for the athletes.”

Warsaw Community High School assistant athletic director Roman Smith, who is in charge of securing game officials for the school’s home events, said Wednesday that he has not had anyone ask to cancel a contract in any fall sport.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” Smith said. “I started reaching out a couple weeks ago to touch base and confirm things, and have not found anybody not willing. It’s really quite the opposite. They’re saying they want to honor their commitments.”

While perhaps not every school in the area can report something that sweeping, and while all things remain precarious during a pandemic, the collective information coming from Smith, Brown and Arnett does at least suggest this area is in a far better position than some pockets of Indiana for securing and keeping its ever-essential officials.

The Indianapolis Star reported last week that the football chair of the Indiana Officials Association, Rick Frank, informed the IHSAA during a recent Zoom call that “seven or eight crews” have already decided not to work this season.

That could lead to some varsity football games being moved to Thursdays or Saturdays. Crews could become four individuals rather than five.

IHSAA assistant commissioner Sandra Walter says the drop in officials renewing their annual licenses this year may wind up being as high as 25% in some areas — and that’s with the deadline being extended from the usual June 1 to Sept. 1 because of the current circumstances.

Even before the pandemic, the IHSAA was waging a campaign to attract new officials, particularly young ones, to combat declining overall numbers and an aging stable.

Per Walter, the average age of an IHSAA game official in 2019 was 50.1, which was “still below the national average,” she pointed out Wednesday.

Age becomes an even bigger deal during a pandemic.

Brown and Arnett are both 63 years old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight of every 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. occur among individuals age 65 and over, and “in general, your risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 increases as you get older.”

Brown, however, does not appear to be flinching, even though as an umpire in football, he is smack in the middle of the action, surrounded by players who are breathing hard on each play, knocking each other down and likely discharging droplets as they’re hit.

“It was an easy decision for me,” Brown said of not opting out. “I do this for the love of the kids. I enjoy doing it. I understand the fears some have, but we want to have a season.”

The Pierceton resident, who is entering his 29th year as an athletic official, says he is encouraged by the safety measures being taken by the IHSAA, those measures being in keeping with guidelines put out by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

A basketball official and baseball umpire as well, Brown acknowledges possessing a mindset of: The games won’t go on if health officials deem them too risky.

Arnett, a basketball official for 29 years, has not traditionally worked other sports on the high school level, but did recently become licensed in volleyball, a fall sport.

“Probably bad timing,” Arnett said with a laugh of plunging into a new endeavor amid a pandemic. Nonetheless, he plans on keeping the volleyball assignments he has.

Volleyball is among the sports that will feature some visible changes designed to cut down health risks. Teams, for example, will not switch benches after each set, according to Arnett.

In football, it’s expected that players along each sideline will be allowed to spread out to the two 10-yard lines instead of the previously mandated 25s. Coaches and players will stand along the two 45-yard lines for the pregame coin tosses, and no more than two players per team will be allowed to participate in those tosses.

“I believe the majority of kids will respect protocols,” Brown said. “That will be one of our responsibilities, too, to help them, and the coaches I’ve talked to support the protocols.”

Officials in all sports will be allowed to wear masks and gloves if they choose, and they can sub out their traditional mouth whistles for electronic, hand-held versions.

“If I don’t have to, I won’t,” Brown said of using an electronic version. “I move my hands a lot. I’d be worried about an inadvertent whistle.”

Opening night for most high school football teams remains Aug. 21, and most also have scrimmages scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 14.

“Obviously, it’s a fluid situation, to use one of those pet phrases,” Arnett said of the outlook for fall sports and beyond.

“I do get a sense of apprehension from some officials, primarily in football,” the South Bend resident added of the exposure to risks. “I’m apprehensive, but I’m also optimistic we can find a way to engage young people in their sports. Hopefully, it works out.”

For its part, the IHSAA has said officials who do opt out for this school year will not face any future repercussions such as having consideration for postseason tournament assignments compromised.

“It’s a thankless job they do,” Walter said. “We definitely want to retain them.”