UPDATE: Monday, 7 p.m.
It’s official: the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has, effective February 1, approved the resumption of high-risk sports and recreational activities.
“We will be able to have those high-risk sports return and have those student-athletes back on the field where they belong,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Monday during a press conference at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown. “We know how important sports are in our kids’ lives. Personally, as a parent of three kids who all play sports, I know how important it is to them. We’ve all struggled through this pandemic together, and what we have learned in dealing with this virus is when we come together and work together we can make progress.”
The county executive stressed the recommencement of these activities does not mean they are safe or without risk. Those participating should assess their individual situation when determining whether to participate, telling those with underlying health conditions, or those whose family members do, to consult with medical providers. School districts also have the ability opt out from the resumption of higher-risk sports and recreational activities.
“This has been an unprecedented event — this natural disaster we’re all dealing with — and there’s no playbook for it,” Mr. Bellone said. “We’ve just had to work together to try to do the right thing, and when we’ve been confronted with decisions, they’re never black and white or simple. It’s all been collaborating and working together to figure out what the best decision is.”
The department of health worked in conjunction with the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and Section XI, the governing body of high school athletics in Suffolk County — following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Friday announcement that high-risk sports can resume pending local health department approval — to come up with guidelines and get a plan rolling.
Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said his team put together 5,000 schedules over the weekend and emailed the 59 athletic directors in his system to share the news.
“This is a day we weren’t quite sure was ever going to come this year, but we are ecstatic the student-athletes will have this opportunity. We’re taking it and running with it,” Mr. Combs said at the press conference, smiling, adding it was something Section XI and many of the athletic directors were hoping for since January 4, the start of practice for the winter sports season. “We appreciate the collaborative effort that’s occurred here. This is a great example of teamwork. We are very proud of this and thankful to all those involved.”
Mr. Bellone said the cornerstone to the health and safety guidelines is testing.
“Testing is critical to confronting COVID-19,” he said. “It allows us to identify positive cases, to isolate and to do contact tracing to help reduce the spread of the virus.”
The state has supplied 20,000 tests to Suffolk County to distribute to school districts to be administered by schools. The plan also includes taking temperatures of players and coaches prior to games, minimizing equipment sharing, maintaining attendance logs, wearing masks when possible and taking attestations that players are free of symptoms. Masks are to be worn as tolerated by the athletes when competing, and when not participating, are to be worn at all times.
Athletic directors have chosen not to have spectators at contests at this time, Mr. Combs said, saying, “We feel that’s the safest thing at this time.”
Coaching staff should coordinate with the district or school’s COVID-19 representative or coordinator when there is a known or suspected case of the novel coronavirus. The district or school’s policy for notification to the school community should be followed, and it is strongly recommended that anyone in close contact to a COVID-19 case during their infectious period — 48 hours prior to the symptom start date or test day if asymptomatic through the day they isolate — get tested.
“And we will continue to work with the state to ensure we have enough testing,” the county executive added. “We know that we can do this.”
Mr. Bellone said despite Suffolk being at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country for some time, school districts and their superintendents, nurses, teachers and the rest of the staff have risen to the occasion to get the county to where it is today.
“We went up that mountain and we saw, of course, incredible devastation as a result of this virus,” he said. “And we’ve worked together and pulled together as a community and a county, struggling and making our way back down the other side of that mountain, keeping numbers down as long as we could.”
He said while many worried about reopening schools safely, everyone involved knew kids had to be back in school, and proved it was possible.
“Our schools are the places where our kids are safest and where the virus is spreading the least,” Mr. Bellone said. “We have a lot of work to do, still, even as we see numbers come back down following the holidays and while we are fighting the second surge, especially as we fight the new variant.”
Student-athletes are also being asked to take the “Champion of the Community” pledge recognizing their responsibility in keeping others safe.
“This pledge will send the message and reinforce the message that our conduct off the field is going to be just as important — if not more important — than our conduct on the field,” Mr. Bellone said. “We expect our athletes to also make sure they do well in school — to not only practice hard but study hard — but it’s off the field, outside of school, where we have seen the spread of the virus. I know our student-athletes, like they have in the past, will rise to the occasion.”
Dr. Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and the Center Moriches Union Free School District superintendent, and whose daughter is a junior in high school and plays field hockey and lacrosse, said he also believes, and numbers show, that school administrators have proved there are systems in place to keep kids safe, and will do it again in this instance.
“Being able to come up with a plan for the safe return to sports for our student-athletes is something that we really are committed to, and I think we can do this safely,” Mr. Masera said. “We recognize the heart and soul of our schools in many cases is our athletic programs and our extracurriculars and it’s so important to provide those opportunities to our kids. We look forward to seeing our athletes back on the fields.”
County parks will also be open to cross country teams to practice and meet, should they need it.
“Kids want to play and we know the health benefits of sports for our kids. We want to do something we know is so important for them, and related to their overall well-being,” Mr. Bellone said. “This provides such a positive lift for these athletes, and to be able to do that today, I think, is a very important step forward in the battle against this pandemic.”
New York State has permitted high-risk high school sports to resume February 1, as long as local health departments approve it.
The news came following a 4 p.m. meeting between Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and its section officials.
“Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher-risk sports and recreation activities may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training, and, further, may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities,” the New York State Department of Health’s January 22 addition to the interim guidance for sports and recreation during the COVID-19 public health emergency reads.
The Suffolk County Department of Health has yet to release a statement regarding a decision, but local school district athletic directors said they’re ready to do whatever it takes help students return to practice and competition.
Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said his thought process all along has been: “We’ll never know until we try.”
“We can’t keep being afraid,” he said. “At some point, we have to go out and try it. If things go bad, that’s when we cancel it. I feel like we should be out there playing basketball, wrestling and all these sports with all our kids.”
Basketball, football, wrestling, hockey, competitive cheerleading, competitive dance, martial arts, boys and girls volleyball and boys and girls lacrosse were all deemed high-risk sports by the state. The group New Yorkers for Student Athletes, using the slogan “Let Them Play,” had been pushing for local and state officials to support student-athletes since sports were canceled in the spring of last year. The group kept saying there was strength in numbers.
“I empathize with them,” Phillips said. “Especially if your kid is a senior and they play a sport that hasn’t been approved. It’s awful.”
Looking around the country, neighboring states, in fact, nearly every state minus New York and Illinois, is already currently allowing kids to play basketball. All sports had also resumed play at most colleges and the professional level amid the pandemic.
In its update, the state said local health authorities should consider whether there has been a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19 identified in the area; local rates of COVID-19 transmission or rate of positivity; and local ability to monitor and enforce compliance in authorizing or continuing to prohibit high-risk sports and recreational activities.
Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said his Suffolk County governing body of athletics is also ready to go should the department of health give the go-ahead for practice to begin next month.
“We are ecstatic for the opportunity to allow our student-athletes competing in high-risk sports an opportunity to play a modified schedule this winter season,” he said, “and for the high-risk sports in the seasons to come.”
East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said he has stressed the statistics to support allowing kids to play.
“The data shows that schools are safe and not super spreaders. The data also has shown that sports are not super spreaders,” Vasile-Cozzo said. “With all the guidelines and safety precautions that are in place, I feel we could offer sports in a safe environment. Our kids need to be out there participating.”
“Everybody keeps saying look at the signs and look at the data, except when it comes to high-risk sports,” Phillips added. “The overwhelming majority of athletic directors within Section XI are all in favor of getting these kids out and playing.”
This potential resumption will be big for students’ mental health, and restores the chances for many to play at the college level and beyond.
“The kids want and need something to look forward to,” Phillips said. “People are social creatures. This will allow them to be back on the field with their teammates and their coaches who are part of a big support system. School is open, but it’s not really fun; there’s nothing to get excited about. Sports is such a big part of so many kids’ lives and brings some sense of normalcy back to their school experience. It’s time. It’s been time.”