COVID UPDATE: All sports cleared to open March 19; DPH unveils new recommendations for spring season

COVID UPDATE: All sports cleared to open March 19; DPH unveils new recommendations for spring season

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With COVID-19 case numbers dropping and vaccinations rising in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont has given all sports the go-ahead to resume March 19.

This green light, part of the state-wide easing of restrictions announced by Lamont on Thursday afternoon, applies to all levels of sports, from youth to high school to college to adult recreational.

It’s a move that fully reverses the suspension of sports the state put in place back in mid-November and only partially relaxed in January, which enabled the CIAC to move ahead with an abbreviated high school winter season.

The one catch: Everything is subject to sports guidance issued by the state Department of Public Health, and within a few hours of the governor’s announcement Thursday, the DPH revealed what that guidance will look like for the spring season.

In a nutshell, the DPH continues to take a cautious approach, yet one that allows for more participation, both on the field and in the stands.

The DPH continues to require masks be worn by athletes competing indoors. That’s the rule being enforced for the current scholastic winter season.

Masks are also being recommended in various degrees for outdoor spring sports, which at the high school level are scheduled to start on March 27.

Cohorting athletes during practices, both indoors and out, also continues to be recommended for all sports, mainly to limit the quarantining fallout in the instance of a positive COVID-19 case on a team.

The new guidance unveiled by the DPH reflects a fundamental change in COVID-19 risk assessment made in late January by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The NFHS did away with the rigid high-, moderate- and low-risk categories previously assigned to various sports.

The updated DPH plan also incorporates guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and input from the CIAC, the Connecticut State Medical Society’s Committee on the Medical Aspects of Sports, the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Yale University School of Public Health.

The key factors now being taken into account are levels of COVID-19 spread in communities, the type of sports activity, the frequency and duration and intensity of contact in those activities, the size of teams involved, and location — namely, is the activity being staged indoors or outdoors?  

It adds up to the DPH now grouping sports by the frequency of face-to-face contact and exertion levels, and issuing recommendations accordingly. Here’s how it now breaks down:

■Frequent face-to-face direct contact with high exertion

This group includes football, martial arts, rugby and wrestling.

Football and wrestling were previously deemed high-risk for the spread of COVID-19, and that’s what led to their seasons being cancelled in Connecticut — wrestling here in the winter; football in the fall and again in the alternative season that had been set up for mid-February through mid-April.

These sports will be allowed starting March 19, with masks required during competition both indoors and outdoors.

Wrestling is an exemption from the mask rule. The American Academy of Pediatrics is concerned that masks present a choking risk in that sport.

The DPH says sports in this category should also limit competition to two teams only — preferably, teams that are in close geographic proximity of one another.

This is the approach now being taken in indoor track, a sport that had been previously put on hold at the start of the winter season, but is now free to conduct dual meets. Lyman Hall and Sheehan, for instance, will go head-to-head at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven on March 8 and 19.

■Intermittent direct contact and/or contact with moderate exertion

This group includes most of the sports previously considered moderate risk — basketball, hockey, field hockey, soccer, girls lacrosse and volleyball. Boys lacrosse, previously considered high risk, is now in this category, a reassessment the CIAC had requested of the NFHS back in January.

Masks are urged for both indoor and outdoor competition in these sports. The DPH is also suggesting officials call games “tighter” to reduce contact and that faceoffs be eliminated in lacrosse.

■Infrequent direct contact and/or contact with low exertion

Many of the spring sports fall into this group — baseball, softball, track and field, tennis doubles.

The mask wearing that’s recommended here tends to be sport-specific. In baseball and softball, for instance, the DPH suggests that the catcher, home plate umpire and batter wear masks. The batter would be able to remove the mask upon reaching base.

Masks are recommended to be worn in any areas outside the field of play where close contact can be expected, such as in dugouts or on benches, during travel to and from games, and during warmups.

■No direct contact or rare contact within six feet

The most socially distanced sports are in this group, such as golf, gymnastics, swimming and tennis singles.

Masks are not required during competition, the DPH says, but should be worn when athletes are not in action or traveling to events. 

This is how swimming was conducted for the girls during the fall and here in the winter for the boys. Participants wear masks except for when they’re in the water.

Regardless of sport, mask recommendations are being extended to all spectators. This is one facet of the sports scene that will look different come spring — not in terms of masks, but of number. Attendance was limited, often to one or two parents from home teams only, in the fall and winter.

As part of his announcement on Thursday, Gov. Lamont said that starting April 2 outdoor event venues can increase to a 50 percent capacity and indoor stadiums can open at 10 percent capacity. High school games for the spring season are scheduled to begin April 10.

The CIAC is planning for a full spring season in Connecticut, complete with traditional state tournaments and championship meets. (Though the New England Championships in track and golf were cancelled on Friday due to continued uncertainty over interstate travel and multi-team events.)

The 2021 CIAC spring season is a departure from the fall and winter seasons of the current school year. Both of those seasons were delayed. Both were limited to a 12-game regular season and a conference-level “postseason experience.” There were no state championships.

After cancelling the entire spring season a year ago, the CIAC had made a full 2021 spring season a priority.

“The CIAC is encouraged by Governor Lamont’s announcement today about opening up additional sports opportunities toward the end of March,” the CIAC remarked in a statement issued Thursday night. “As has been the practice throughout the pandemic, the CIAC will now review the latest information with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and Board of Control.”

Amid the loosening of restrictions, one recommendation remains paramount: wear a mask.

“While it is encouraging to see the number of cases in our state gradually going down and people getting vaccinated at rates that are among the highest in the nation, we need to continue taking this virus seriously to mitigate its spread as much as possible,” Lamont said. “Please continue to wear face coverings in public and when around other people outside of your households, maintain social distancing, and keep washing your hands and cleaning surfaces. Connecticut has made tremendous strides to combat this pandemic, and we don’t want to lose the progress that we’ve made.”

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