Thursday was a special day for many high school athletes as winter contact sports were given the green light by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to resume their competitive seasons starting Monday, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to reinstate boys and girls basketball, ice hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer to resume practices with contact on Feb. 8 eliminates prior orders that restricted the four sports to non-contact activities and no competition through Feb. 21. All four sports will have clearance to start competition next week too, with basketball and hockey games able to start on Feb. 8 while wrestling and competitive cheer will wait until Feb. 12.
However, athletes cannot hop into practice and competition without precautions. Here is a look into the precautions required and other key takeaways from today’s big news.
What is required of teams and athletes?
The main thing stressed in today’s announcement is that all athletes must remain masked in practice and competition whenever possible. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel were both very clear on the use of masks in today’s press conference.
Also, athletes are always expected to continue to practice social distancing while not involved in workouts or competition.
“As a parent of children involved in sports as well, I understand the interest and emotion connected to finding solutions that allow us to gradually reopen opportunities for youth sports – including their physical and mental health benefits – while keeping our kids, coaches and families as safe as possible from COVID-19,” Hertel said.
It has been acknowledged that in cases where masks cannot be worn, teams can still compete only if they take part in the testing parameters set by the MDHHS.
How will the testing process work?
The MDHHS said any athletes or teams unable to wear masks during competition should be tested according to the program specified in the Testing and Additional Mitigation Measures for Athletic Practice and Play section of MDHHS’s Interim Guidance for Athletics.
Although the MDHHS says more information will be available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus by Sunday, Feb. 7, the testing requirements could look very much like the pilot testing program that football, volleyball and girls swimming and diving participated in January in order to complete their seasons.
The COVID-19 antigen testing that took place with the three fall sports in January required all active athletes, coaches and team personnel to be tested for COVID-19 at least 3 times per week on non-consecutive days, with testing conducted prior to the start of practice or competition on those days.
On Thursday, the MHSAA said in a statement that all testing “will be coordinated between schools and MDHHS or their local health departments.”
In the pilot program, the participant test results could be determined in 15 minutes after each test. During the pilot program, athletes are prohibited to play or practice while symptomatic even with a negative COVID-19 test, per current CDC guidelines. They may return only when symptoms have resolved for at least 24 hours and with a negative RT-PCR test result.
Why are contact sports coming back now?
Currently, Michigan is on a downswing of it third and largest wave of daily coronavirus cases. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the MDHHS’s chief deputy for health, highlighted “key metrics” to support the return of winter contact sports.
These are the numbers shared by the MDHHS heading into today’s press conference:
• Hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 patients has been in 10-week decline, with current capacity at 6.6 percent for beds with COVID-19 patients after it peaked at 19.6 percent on Dec. 4.
• Overall case rates are currently at 159 cases per million after peaking at 740 cases per million on Nov. 14. The rate has been in solid decline for 24 days. The Detroit, Traverse City and Upper Peninsula regions are now below 150 cases per million people.
• The state’s COVID-19 positive test rate is currently at 4.9 percent and declining. This is the first time positivity has been this low since mid-October.
What do the season schedules look like for each sport?
As a result of the lengthy delay for contact sports, each of the sports have had state tournament dates pushed back from the norm, with certain sports seeing a more significant pushback than usual.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association announced these tournament dates for each sport on Thursday:
Districts: March 22, 24, 26
Regionals: March 29, 31
Quarterfinals: April 5
Semifinals: April 7
Finals: April 9. This date is about three weeks after finals would normally occur.
Districts: March 23, 25, 27
Regionals: March 30, April 1
Quarterfinals: April 6
Semifinals: April 8
Finals: April 10. This date is about two weeks after finals would normally occur.
Districts: March 15-20
Regionals: March 22-24
Finals: March 26-27. This date is about three weeks after finals usually take place.
Regionals: March 15-20
Quarterfinals: March 23
Semifinals: March 25-26
Finals: March 27. This date is approximately two weeks after finals normally occur.
Districts: March 15-20
Regionals: March 22-28
Team Finals: March 30
Individual Finals: April 2-3. Both finals dates are approximately a month after they usually occur.
In the meantime, boys and girls basketball are permitted three games per week, Monday-Sunday. Hockey has the same rule with the added option to have two games on one non-school day twice, allowing teams up to four games Monday through Sunday for those two weeks. For wrestling, teams may compete two days per week, Monday through Sunday, with no more than four teams at a site and with each individual competing in up to three matches per day. Competitive cheerleading teams may participate in 12 days of competition, not counting MHSAA Tournament events.
What about official shortages?
A shortage of game officials became a real issue with fall sports, especially football, as referees were often booked for double-headers throughout the season. Heading into the full fall season in September, the MHSAA said schools might have to get creative with scheduling games and officials.
With all winter sports going into full-swing next week, MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl echoes the same advice for winter teams.
“There’s always a need for more officials,” Uyl said. “That doesn’t go away with a pandemic. Schools are going to be more creative with their scheduling … maybe a case of a doubleheader and using the same officials. Some games may end up going back to using two officials. We’re working on how we’re going to make the officiating puzzle fit.”
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