A surprise comment Gov. Tom Wolf made at a news conference about COVID-19 Thursday threw much of Pennsylvania’s high school athletics community into a tizzy.
The Wolf administration had largely been silent on the resumption of high school sports this fall, until the subject came up at the news conference, which was about the state’s pandemic response.
When a reporter asked if there was an update on Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) guidance allowing parents to be in the stands at games this fall, Wolf answered the question by saying no fall sports should take place.
“The guidance is we should avoid any congregate settings, and that means anything that brings people together is going to help that virus get us,” he said. “We ought to do everything we can to defeat that virus.”
“The guidance from us–the recommendation is–we don’t do any sports until Jan. 1,” he added.
The news conference then concluded, with Wolf later issuing a news release that expanded upon his answer.
“The administration is providing this strong recommendation and not an order or mandate,” it said. “As with deciding whether students should return to in-person classes, remote learning or a blend of the two this fall, school administrators and locally elected school boards should make decisions on sports.”
The recommendation to pause youth sports until Jan. 1, 2021 applies to team and individual, school and non-school recreational youth sports and includes competitions, intramurals and scrimmages.
It does not apply to collegiate and professional sports, however a gathering limit of 25 people indoors and 250 people outside is applicable across the board.
Wolf’s administration issued pandemic-related guidance for sports in June, which the news release noted is being updated to reflect the recommendation that sports be put on hold til 2021.
Currently listed among the guidance are the following requirements, which are applicable to all sporting events:
- Coaches and league officials must review and consider CDC guidance for youth sports and modify practices and games to mitigate the risk of spreading coronavirus. This includes focusing on individual skill building versus competition and limiting contact in close contact sports.
- Each community, league or team must designate a primary point of contact for all questions related to COVID-19, as well as a plan of action in the event an athlete, coach or official falls ill. The plan must be publicly available, and explained to the entire sport community.
- Each community, league or team must educate all athletes, staff and families about the symptoms of COVID-19 and when to stay home. Athletes also should be educated on proper hand washing and sanitizing techniques.
- Coaches and other adult personnel should wear face coverings (masks or face shields) at all times, unless doing so jeopardizes their health.
- Coaches and athletes must maintain appropriate social distancing at all times possible, including in the field of play, in locker rooms, on sidelines, in dugouts, on benches and in workout areas. During down time, athletes and coaches should not congregate.
- Coaches and athletic staff must screen and monitor athletes for symptoms prior to and during games and practices. If individuals participating in athletics show symptoms, have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher or are sick, they must be sent home.
- All athletes, coaches and officials must bring their own water and drinks to team activities. Shared team water coolers along with disposable cups are banned and fixed water fountains should not be used.
- Activities that increase the risk of exposure to saliva–such as chewing gum, spitting, licking one’s fingers and eating sunflower seeds–are not allowed.
- Handshakes, fist bumps and high fives should be avoided at all times. Unnecessary physical contact with teammates, other athletes, coaches, officials and spectators should be kept to a minimum.
- Whenever possible, equipment and other personal items should be separated and not shared. If equipment must be shared, all equipment should be properly disinfected between users.
- If multiple games are being held at the same facility, adequate time must be scheduled between them to allow for the facilities to be cleaned and disinfected, and to minimize interaction between athletes. Sports complexes with multiple fields may operate simultaneous games or practices on fields within a complex only if social distancing can be maintained. Each individual game or practice at a complex must adhere to gathering occupancy limits and the facility as a whole may not exceed 50 percent of its total occupancy limit as permitted by law.
- Concession stands or other food must adhere to the Guidance for Businesses in the Restaurant Industry.
Football, which is traditionally the most anticipated fall sport at the high school level, is considered a close contact sport and thus one that carries a higher risk for the potential transmission of the virus.
The CDC guidance for youth sports referenced in the state’s guidance for athletics does not specify whether athletes should wear face masks while playing, although wearing them is required of athletes who aren’t active at a game.
“Masks may be challenging for players (especially younger players) to wear while playing sports,” the CDC said. “Masks should be worn by coaches, youth sports staff, officials, parents and spectators as much as possible.”
In Pennsylvania, a statewide health department order that first took effect in April and was later expanded requires the use of face coverings inside businesses as well as outside when social distancing isn’t possible. The only exceptions are for individuals who have a medical condition that makes them unable to wear a mask and for children under two.
As a result of Wolf’s statement, the PIAA board of directors held an emergency meeting to discuss fall sports Thursday afternoon.
No decisions were made at the meeting, but the board issued a news release indicating they are “tremendously disappointed” in the Wolf administration for coming out against fall sports.
PIAA Update: pic.twitter.com/ue7q7xQy9U— PIAA (@PIAASports) August 6, 2020
“Our member schools have worked diligently to develop health and safety plans to allow students the safe return to interscholastic athletics,” it said.
The PIAA board of directors plans to meet again Friday to discuss the situation. A statement is then expected.
Saucon Valley’s football season is scheduled to begin Aug. 28 along with the seasons of seven other schools. Five districts in the Colonial League–including Southern Lehigh–have opted to delay the start of their fall seasons.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 807 new cases of the novel coronavirus Thursday. New case counts dropped a bit over the past week, after increasing during July; trends that were observed both locally and statewide.
#COVID19 Update (as of 8/6/20 at 12:00 am):— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) August 6, 2020
• 807 additional positive cases of COVID-19
• 116,521 total cases statewide
• 7,282 deaths statewide
• 1,183,730 patients tested negative to date
More information: https://t.co/7pzosEXhEX