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Gov. Tom Wolf: PIAA sports can resume, but on a limited basis

TOM REISENWEBER
Erie Times-News (TNS)
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg in March.

After more than 90 days with no high school sports in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf gave the go ahead to resume athletic activities on Wednesday after releasing safety guidelines.

However, the return of sports as the COVID-19 pandemic continues is contingent upon individual school districts' development and implementation of safety plans. Teams and schools also must follow detailed safety protocols mandated by the state before practices or games may resume.

The release states "Pre-K to 12 (PK-12) school sports under the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association are permitted to resume in counties designated in the yellow and green phases, in alignment with the PDE Preliminary Guidance for Phased Reopening of Pre-K to 12 Schools and the CDC Considerations for Youth Sports."

The statement also that "During the yellow and green phases of reopening, sports-related activities at the PK-12 level are limited to student athletes, coaches, officials and staff only. The addition of visitors and spectators will be contingent upon future health conditions within the state and local communities."

Melissa Mertz, the PIAA associate executive director, said that the restriction of fans is in place now because no events with fans are set to take place for the next two months. Those restrictions could change in August when the regular season begins for several fall sports.

The release went on to say that the "decision to resume sports-related activities, including conditioning, practices and games, is the discretion of a school entity's governing body."

Activities can immediately begin: That means school boards that feel their school has the safety protocols in place and are ready to go can immediately begin offseason team activities.

The PIAA put out a release on Friday telling schools to start preparing for the start of offseason activities, including putting safety protocols in place.

The announcement on Wednesday also reverses the PIAA's original start date of July 1 for offseason activities.

"We had discussions with Governor Wolf's office about our July 1 start date for activities and asked them for June 15 after they allowed recreation programs to take place," said PIAA associate executive director Melissa Mertz. "We're happy from a standpoint that we now have a plan in place with bullet point items to follow to return to offseason workouts. When schools are ready to go, they are allowed to do offseason activities."

"Allowing voluntary activities to commence at PIAA member schools as early as the approval by the local board is a significant move," said Robert Lombardi, the PIAA executive director.

Mertz also confirmed that schools in the yellow and green phases are allowed to conduct offseason workouts. The schools in the yellow phase will face more restrictions to group activities.

"We want kids getting back to being kids and working out and training for the upcoming season," Mertz said. "The next step is developing anything we need to do to conduct fall sports. We've been collaborating with the NFHS for guidance. We want to be cautious and adhere to things like social distancing and making sure everyone is safe."

Dates of note: In a normal offseason, fall sports teams would be allowed to hold open gyms and voluntary offseason workouts until August. All PIAA sports activity was originally placed on hold until July 1 over coronavirus concerns.

The first official practice date for the 2020 fall season is Aug. 17, and football teams can go through heat acclimatization starting Aug 10. The golf regular season is set for Aug. 20, while girls tennis can begin its regular season on Aug. 24. The first play date for football is Aug. 28, and the rest of the fall sports can start their regular seasons on Sept. 4.

Mertz said that the PIAA is planning on fall sports to start on time and for all fall sports to take place, including football.

"We know the virus is an evolving thing and there are new reports out all of the time," Mertz said. "We will modify things as we go. If that means a condensed season or other changes we will adjust to make sure everyone is safe."

The rules: The release lists 13 bullet points that must be adhered to, including:

►Coaches and league officials must review and consider the CDC guidance on consideration for youth sports to modify practices and games to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. This includes focusing on individual skill building versus competition and limiting contact in close contact sports.

►The community, league, or team must designate a primary point of contact for all questions related to COVID-19, and all parents, athletes, officials, and coaches must be provided the person's contact information.

►The community, league, or team must develop a plan of action in the event an athlete, coach, or official falls ill, make the plan publicly available, and explain it to the entire sport community.

►The 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.

►Coaching staff 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, locker rooms, sidelines, dugouts, benches, and 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 sporting activities 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. Team water coolers for sharing through disposable cups are not allowed. Fixed water fountains should not be used.

►Activities that increase the risk of exposure to saliva must not be allowed including chewing gum, spitting, licking fingers, and eating sunflower seeds.

►Avoid shaking hands, fist bumps, or high fives before, during or after games and practices. Limit unnecessary physical contact with teammates, other athletes, coaches, officials, and spectators.

►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 to be held at the same facility, adequate time shall be scheduled between contests to allow for 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 the gathering occupancy limits (25 in yellow, 250 in green), and the facility as a whole may not exceed 50% of total occupancy otherwise permitted by law.

►Concession stands or other food must adhere to the Guidance for Businesses in the Restaurant Industry.

The recommdations: The guidance also includes several bullet points that schools are encouraged to follow:

►To operate games or practice, organizations and teams that are otherwise permitted to conduct in-person activities pursuant to this guidance are encouraged to do the following:

►In counties in the Yellow Phase of Reopening, indoor training or sports may only be conducted by organizations subject to supervision or regulation of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association or National Collegiate Athletic Associations, and only in accordance with guidance provided by those governing bodies. Start by limiting games, scrimmages, and matches to teams in your region first. Expand beyond regional play if cases continue to stay low.

►Adult athletes are encouraged to wear face coverings when they are not engaged in a sporting activity, unless doing so jeopardizes their health.

►Coaches should create a back-up staffing plan which should include cross-training staff and coaches and training all coaches and officials on safety protocols.

►Limit cash transactions to the extent possible; find alternative ways to charge admission and pay for concessions.

►Create protocols to limit entrance and exit traffic, designating specific entry to and exits from facilities. Establish protocols to ensure staggered pick up and drop off for practice and events and ensure that athletes are not congregating while awaiting pick up and to ensure congregation or crowding does not occur on drop off. Pickups and drop offs should remain outside. Parents should not enter the facility.