Coronavirus: California lifts ban on prep football, other sports

by health and nutrition advice journalist

High school football and other outdoor sports will be allowed to resume play across many parts of California for the first time in nearly 12 months, the state Department of Public Health announced Friday morning, culminating a long-fought battle for return-to-play advocates.

Football, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo and lacrosse are all among the sports allowed to begin competition next Friday in any county in the state with a per-capita case rate of fewer than 14 per 100,000 residents — currently 27 of the state’s 58 counties, including all but Contra Costa and Solano counties in the Bay Area. Indoor sports were left untouched, without compelling evidence they can be played safely. Higher-contact sports that have been approved to play must also adhere to new guidelines, namely a weekly testing regimen.

Dr. Tomás Aragón, the state’s public health officer, cited declining rates of infection across the state as a key factor for the timing of the announcement, which return-to-play advocates have been anticipating all week after nearly two months of negotiations.

“Youth sports are important to our children’s physical and mental health, and our public health approach has worked to balance those benefits against COVID-19 risks,” Aragón said in a statement. “With case rates and hospitalizations declining across California, we are allowing outdoor competition to resume, with modifications and steps to reduce risk, in counties where case rates are lower.”

Some low-contact, outdoor sports, like cross country, have already begun in California. But the ruling is especially crucial for the state’s football teams, which high-school officials say have to get a season in by April 17 for next year to start on time. Now, many of California’s some 87,000 prep football players should have time to fit in at least a five-game season.

Football players, as well as athletes who play rugby or water polo, will also be required to be tested weekly if their home county has a case rate above 7/100K. That is because those sports are “likely to be played unmasked, with close, face-to-face contact exceeding 15 minutes.”

Other sports defined as moderate contact, such as baseball, softball and cheerleading, will not be subject to the testing requirement but it was recommended for athletes in all sports.

By lifting the ban on outdoor sports, Newsom has also paved the way forward for spring seasons to start on time in baseball, softball and lacrosse — all of which had their seasons cut short last year with the initial round of coronavirus closures.

However, now the battle moves to local health authorities, who could still restrict competition beyond the newly relaxed state rules. A source close to the discussions said there may be “one or two” counties that implement stricter rules that the state but it was not yet clear at the time of the announcement.

For example, Santa Clara County last month released its own youth sports guidelines that aligned with the state while under the purple tier but explicitly ruled out non-purple-tier sports. The same set of rules also demand 6 feet of distance at all times — difficult to comply with in sports such as football — and prohibit all indoor athletic activities. Although the CIF last week lifted its ban on competing simultaneously with two teams, Santa Clara County maintained its rule restricting students to a single cohort beyond their classroom.

While almost everywhere in Bay Area got the immediate green light Friday, most of Southern California still fell short of the requirements.

California’s high school athletes have been sidelined since March, but the return-to-play campaign began in earnest this winter, when it looked as if many sports may not return, perhaps until next school year.

When Brad and Kirsten Hensley launched Let Them Play CA on New Year’s Eve, it was merely a Facebook group with a passionate few hundred members. Six weeks later, its membership had swelled to 60,000, Hensley registered the group as a 501(c)(3), and it had brought in more than $25,000 in donations.

Patrick Walsh had been able to hold some distanced workouts with his players at Serra High School in San Mateo, but the uncertainty of when his team — and all the others in the nation’s most populous state, with some 3 million youth athletes — would ever see the field again competitively began to give him panic attacks, he said. So, on Dec. 20, he launched the Golden State High School Football Coaches Community, which over the following two months would go on to collect crucial data presented to the Governor’s office.

Walsh’s counterpart at powerful De La Salle in Concord, Justin Alumbaugh, hopped on board, and in Southern California, so did Ron Gladnick, head football coach at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego. Eventually the coaches community swelled to more than 900 members across California.

That Walsh’s coaches community and Hensley’s group of parents converged Walsh credited to an act of faith.

By February, the two groups were meeting frequently with staff from Newsom’s office and the California Department of Public Health. But even after direct meetings with Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, the top state’s top health official, return-to-play advocates had been rebuked with a timeline that only seemed to grow longer, despite public assurances that the state intended to get student-athletes back on the playing field.

What started as an effort described as already in the fourth quarter quickly became a two-minute drill.

The groups divided into six “Seal Teams” with specific missions, Walsh said, a reference to the U.S. special forces units.

Most importantly was to get the proof that sports could be played safely. Inspired by a similar successful effort from coaches in Texas that led to a full season in the Lone Star State last fall, Walsh enlisted Alumbaugh with collecting data from the coaches community. The primary goal was to show their distanced workouts had been safe — between over 1 million touch points, they traced 13 cases in athletes and coaches back to workouts, according to their data, which was self-reported and not scientific — but they also discovered an apparently devastating toll the sports shutdown had taken on their kids.

Their survey of California coaches found that about nine in 10 reported increases in student-athletes who had dropped out or were academically ineligible, or were incarcerated or expecting a child. About eight in 10 said there had been an increase in their student-athletes who had joined a gang.

A group of East Bay coaches highlighted the experiences of their kids in less affluent areas of Oakland and Richmond. At Skyline High School in Oakland, coach Joe Bates lost a player to gun violence last fall and said it’s been increasingly difficult to keep his student-athletes engaged. Richmond coach George Jackson called his city’s streets the “wild, wild west” with kids riding rampant on motorbikes who once had been entertained by extracurriculars.

Hensley’s community of parents was tasked with compiling data from other states that had played on while California was on pause, and Kirsten led the effort to earn a letter of support signed by 70 physicians around the state, focused on the mental-health effects of the kids.

Return-to-play advocates said they got involved to give their kids a voice in Sacramento, where they felt nobody was lobbying for California’s youth in the back and forth over coronavirus-fueled health restrictions. Most kids in California haven’t returned to the classroom or the playing field since last March, while college and professional athletes play on and other businesses continue to operate.

Finally, it came time for Gladnick, the Torrey Pines coach, to become the kids’ legislative lobbyist. With an outspoken Twitter account and persistent outreach, Gladnick earned bipartisan support of dozens of state senators and assembly members.

With one successful Hail Mary in their back pocket, California’s football coaches are now calling on their counterparts in other sports to follow their lead. Walsh, Alumbaugh, Gladnick and their community of 900-plus coaches have seasons to prepare for, meaning the football coaches likely won’t have the capacity to lead any longer. But they’re hoping to pass off their playbook and continue the fight.

For high-contact, indoor sports, like basketball, it may take even more than a half-court buzzer beater.

State health officials have been reluctant to move forward with indoor sports, which have less data to support their safety. While some studies have claimed to show little to no on-field transmission in outdoor sports, there have been a number of outbreaks traced back to indoor sporting events, including nearly 100 cases from an unsanctioned basketball tournament in Placer County.

Under the modified California Interscholastic Federation calendar, basketball and boys’ volleyball seasons are set to begin in March with potential postseason in June (the scheduled girls’ volleyball season is set to conclude in April, likely unplayed). Whether health officials relent in time for a season to be played remains unknown.

California is one of 26 states to have delayed its winter basketball season into 2021, according to the National Federation of High Schools, but it is one of only seven where play still has not begun. Similarly, it was one of 24 to delay its wrestling season and is one of 14 to have not started contests, according to NFHS.

In the fall, California was one of 15 states to delay its football season until 2021, according to NFHS. By mid-February, however, every state but California, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut had scheduled a start to its season.

Finally, this week, California football players — and thousands of other student-athletes — got the green light. Now, the return-to-play movement will attempt to transition its success from the gridiron to the hardwood.

This content was originally published here.

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