Most high school sports OK Sept. 21, but football delayed for now, Cuomo says

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High school sports considered to have lower risk, including tennis, soccer, cross country, field hockey and swimming, may practice and play starting Sept. 21, but football, wrestling, rugby, ice hockey and volleyball can only practice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday, Aug. 24.

No travel, practice or play will be allowed outside a school’s region or contiguous regions and counties until Oct. 19.

A date when the sports deemed higher-risk can begin play will be announced.

Practices for higher-risk sports are limited to individual or group, no- to low-contact training. This is based on the state Health Department’s guidance for sports and recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The state has done a lot of research on how we can safely have our students participate in school sports and get the exercise they need, and the guidance we developed will allow lower-risk sports to begin practicing and playing next month,” Cuomo said.

“We are approaching youth sports as we have approached everything else in our phased reopening — teams are not allowed to compete outside a school’s region or contiguous region for the time being until we can gauge the effects.”

Schools will also have to limit capacity of indoor facilities to no more than 50 percent occupancy and limit spectators to no more than two per player, while also implementing requirements for social distancing and wearing masks or other face coverings.

Questions remained about many details, from how schedules would be adapted to the later season start and how junior varsity and modified teams are affected.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association said on Twitter it will give more specific guidance after a meeting among section executive directors on Tuesday.

“Yesterday (Aug. 24) was good news,” Clinton athletic director Mike King said. “Your first thought is: fantastic, having lost your spring season and the effect it had on the students and coaches.” Now, “What do we need to do to assure the safety of our kids?” The safety procedure process is the next step, he noted. “It’s been such a difficult time since March. The procedures we set up, we really have to stick to them,” so as to avoid a future shutdown. “A lot will fall on the Athletic Departments and the coaches.” He continued: “In the (Center State Conference), emails immediately went out about how soon we can get together at least through Zoom,” to talk about plans. He said he’s looking forward to the reaction from the NYSPHSA’s COVID task force later this week, as well as how restrictions beyond regional games might alter the school’s schedules. For example, the Warriors’ boys soccer team had a road game at South Jefferson to start its season Sept. 28.

The limit of interscholastic play to within regions or contiguous regions follows the approach Cuomo and state government have followed throughout the pandemic.

Rome and Oneida County are in the Mohawk Valley region, which also includes Herkimer, Otsego, Schoharie, Fulton and Montgomery counties. Madison County is in the Central New York region based in Syracuse, and Lewis County is in the North Country, which extends to Watertown and Jefferson County as well as much of the St. Lawrence River valley and Adirondacks.

Sections for high school sports do not follow the exact same boundaries. But play in contiguous regions would appear to allow schools from Oneida County to compete in the Syracuse, Albany and Binghamton areas.

“Great news for student-athletes,” NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said on Twitter shortly after Cuomo’s announcement.

The distinction between lower- and higher-risk sports is reflected in guidelines dated Aug. 15 from the state Health Department. It classified lower-risk sports as those having “greatest ability to maintain physical distance and/or be performed individually” and the “greatest ability to (1) avoid touching of shared equipment, (2) clean and disinfect any equipment between uses by different individuals, or (3) not use shared equipment at all.”

Higher-risks sports were those with the least ability to do so, and “moderate-risk” sports included baseball, softball, doubles tennis and other racket games, water polo, gymnastics, field hockey, non-contact lacrosse, flag football, swimming relays, soccer, crew with two or more rowers on board, rafting, BMX bike racing and paintball. Competitive cheer and group dance was included with the higher-risk sports, which included basketball — a sport not mentioned in Cuomo’s Monday announcement.

Cuomo’s announcement leaves New York in a situation similar to the majority of other states. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 37 states are modifying their scholastic sports seasons in some way and 17 are not having fall football, including neighboring states Massachusetts and Vermont.

Fourteen states have announced no changes yet, mostly in the Great Plains but also Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Utah and Idaho.

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