Contact sports can resume Monday in Michigan, with masks

A ban on popular high school winter sports was lifted Thursday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, days after frustrated parents and anxious teens rallied at the Capitol to try to persuade officials that basketball, wrestling and hockey could safely take place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Whitmer said science, not protests, made the difference. Nonetheless, many school officials said they believe she considered the pleas to revive the sports season.

Athletes must wear masks or, if that is unsafe, be regularly tested for COVID-19 under the revised order.

“Our numbers are now in a place where can allow our kids to get back in the game with their coaches and teammates,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference. Student-athletes have missed a sense of connection and belonging as well many other attributes of playing sports, she said.

The ban began Nov. 18, when the state also prohibited in-person instruction at high schools and reinstated business closures and restrictions to address a resurgence in cases and hospitalizations.

Contact sports have been barred unless all participants, teams and venues comply with an enhanced virus testing regimen, as conducted by pro and college leagues, or a pilot testing program, which enabled the recent completion of fall high school tournaments that had been suspended. Winter high school sports — basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer — along with youth soccer and other leagues have effectively been restricted to non-contact practice and training only.

A group called Let Them Play Michigan, a hockey league and the parents of five high school athletes sued the state this week, days after a large weekend rally in Lansing.

In a tweet, Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who had called for sports to resume, thanked Whitmer for “listening to students. Allowing winter sports to move forward will improve their mental health, overall well being, and bring many back to school this school year.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association said basketball and hockey games will start Monday, with wrestling and cheer following Feb. 12. Wrestlers must undergo a rapid antigen test on the day of meets and can compete without a mask, said executive director Mark Uyl.

A 250- or 500-spectator limit will remain in place, depending on the size of a stadium or arena. The order encourages sports organizers to administer a testing program despite it not being a requirement. Further guidance will be issued Sunday. It will include a recommendation that attendance be limited to two spectators per athlete, said Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel.

“School sports foster valuable life skills, promote healthy living and help kids build lifelong friendships,” said Sen. Dale Zorn, an Ida Republican who sponsored a Senate-passed resolution that encouraged Whitmer and the Department of Health and Human Services to lift the suspension of many high school and youth sports. ”I am glad that the state is giving back these rewarding experiences to our children while also ensuring they stay safe.”

The state let high schools resume face-to-face classes on Dec. 21, when entertainment businesses also were allowed to reopen with capacity limits. Restaurants resumed indoor dining earlier this week.

Whitmer, who is recommending that K-12 schools offer an in-person instruction option by March 1, signed an order Thursday creating an advisory council to help students recover from learning loss and other challenges stemming from the pandemic. The panel will recommend, among other things, steps related to summer school, before-and-after school programs and extended school years.  (AP)

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