The New York State Department of Health released new guidance Friday that would give county health departments the power to authorize high-risk sports activity, including interscholastic competition, in their area starting Feb. 1.
The update can be found in the “Interim COVID-19 Guidance for Sports and Recreation” document. It states: “Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher risk sports and recreation activities may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training and, further, may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities (i.e., county health departments).”
It suggests that local health departments should evaluate “whether there has been a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19 identified in the area; local rates of COVID-19 transmission or rate of positivity; local ability to monitor and enforce compliance,” before giving the go ahead to their county.
Scott Gray, the Jefferson County Board of Legislators chairman, said in an email to the Times that he and the county public health department will need to review the new guidance thoroughly before making a statement, but he hopes to have one prepared by Monday.
Lewis County manager Ryan Piche said late Friday night that his county’s schools are a go for sports. There was no immediate word from St. Lawrence County officials about a go-ahead for sports.
The state DOH guidance reiterates that travel for all high-, moderate- and low-risk sports is prohibited outside of a schools region or neighboring regions.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association had planned to begin its winter high-risk sports season on Jan. 4, but those plans were nixed when it became clear that the State Department of Health, nor Gov. Andrew Cuomo were going to provide the necessary authorization by that time.
Immediately, this authorization impacts basketball, volleyball, wrestling and ice hockey, all high-risk winter sports. But NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas is under the impression that once local health departments authorize high-risk sports this coming week, that authorization will apply to high-risk sports across all seasons.
Local health departments can also put a stop to sports if the COVID-19 spread in their community deems that action necessary.
The week ahead will be a busy one for Section 3 executive director John Rathbun, who was surprised to see the New York State Department of Health allow for high-risk sports to be played.
“Let’s just say, I was shocked,” Rathbun said. “I was shocked, but I’m pretty optimistic guy and I’ve been praying for this day and I’m so excited that it’s here. But, I was shocked because I had watched the governor’s press conference at 12:30 p.m. and he never said a word and I’m like ‘OK, here’s another week gone by that we know there’s no approval. When that came out this afternoon, the first time I saw it was about 3:40, then I had a 4 p.m. Zoom call with Dr. Zayas.”
Starting Monday, a week before winter high-risk sports can begin, Rathbun will be sending letters to all county health departments in Section 3, asking for their blessing.
“Basically, reference the (state) department of health giving their approval and asking (the county board of health) for their blessing,” Rathbun said. “So, we can have sports this winter season and for the rest of this school year for high-risk sports.”
Rathbun spent time interacting with Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon — who had recently expressed support for the authorization of high-risk sports.
While section directors work with local health departments to get sports off the ground, the state association will release updated guidance for high-risk sports. That document is expected to be released Monday.
“Well, we released this resource document a number of times already for our member schools, we released it early September and then we provided an update in mid-December,” Zayas said. “It’s to provide guidance and sport considerations for our member schools to help them understand what they need to do in order to provide interscholastic athletics for their student athletes. On Monday we’ll simply be updating the document to include those high-risk sports that are authorized today.”
Sports are still expected to meet their practice requirement before competition can begin, as of now rest days have not been waived. For winter sports, 10 practices are required for wrestling while six practices are required for all other sports.
If high-risk sports can begin practicing Feb. 1 in the north country, it would be about a week, to a week and a half before games can be played, leaving only two to three weeks before the start of the Fall II season on March 1.
According to Zayas, individual sections have the authority to decide when a season will end. If there is overlap between two seasons, it is up to the individual sections as to whether or not an athlete can participate in two sports at once.
In Section 3, there are still some hurdles that need to be crossed before high-risk sports can be played.
“The problems we have in Section 3,” Rathbun said, “because we’re so darn big, is that we have 106 school districts, 13 counties, 11 different department of health’s that we have to get clearance from.”
Section 3 will also need to make sure that it has the proper number of staff, officials and access to facilities to allow games to be played.
“There are a lot of little things that we have to do,” Rathbun said. “But I think the most important thing for students to know is that come February 1st, if we get that clearance, we’re good to go.”
Granted that clearance isn’t a given, it’s still possible that one of the 11 department of health’s in Section 3 won’t authorize high-risk sports.
The sense around league and section offices was of joy and relief.
“I think our students will be able to go to bed with a smile on their (faces),” Rathbun said. “Knowing they will have an opportunity to play the sport that they love.”