“Today, MDHHS is issuing an epidemic order to allow in-person practice and competitions for sports leagues, starting on Monday, Feb. 8,” Whitmer said. “I know these past months have been tough on all of us, and I know they’ve been really hard on student-athletes who’ve been missing a sense of connection and belonging, as well as many other attributes that playing sports provides.”
Under the previous Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order, basketball, hockey, wrestling, competitive cheer and youth leagues were shut down at least through Feb. 21.
MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said she signed the amended order Thursday. It allows sports to resume with “consistent masking, team testing and other precautions,” she said.
“This includes ice hockey, basketball, wresting, soccer and more,” Hertel said.
“I appreciate the passion of our young athletes and the desire that they share to get back in the game that they love,” Whitmer said.
The governor said officials have been closely monitoring Michigan’s COVID-19 metrics, and those numbers have reached a point where more sports can return to action.
“Our numbers are now in a place where we can allow our kids to get back in the game with their coaches and teammates,” Whitmer said.
For contact sports to resume, masks must be worn at all times during practices and competition, Whitmer said. If masks can’t be worn during play, participants have to be regularly tested for COVID-19, consistent with MDHHS’s Testing and Additional Mitigation Measures for Athletic Practice and Play guidance. according to the state.
“Where masks are not compatible with the competition, (athletes) will be allowed to compete without masks if certain strict safety protocols are in place, including a testing regimen,” Whitmer said. “This is exciting news, and I’m so glad that our kids are going to be able to get back into playing the sports that they love.”
Those testing guidelines will be available at Michigan.gov/coronavirus on Sunday (Feb. 7), officials said.
Masks are not required for outdoor non-contact sports where participants can maintain a social distance. For all other sports, indoor and outdoor, masks or the testing protocol outlined above will be required.
When not actively playing, participants must maintain six feet of distance and wear face masks at all times, Whitmer said.
“As a former college athlete myself, and the mother of three children who play sports, I know the important role that sports play in our family’s lives,” MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said.
Khaldun said it’s critical for everyone to follow the COVID-19 protocols to make sure sports and in-person learning at schools can resume and continue without spreading the virus.
“We are counting on everyone to help make this work so we won’t eventually have to take steps backward again,” Hertel said. “During all practices and competition, participants are required to remain masked during play.
“Masks should be worn at all times when not playing. Participants are required to maintain six feet of distance from each other during practice and when not engaged in competitive play.”
Up to 250 people are allowed in stadiums that seat fewer than 10,000 people, and up to 500 people are allowed at venues that seat more than 10,000 people.
“Sports organizers, the institutions, the schools, associations or other organizations that set and enforce rules to ensure the physical health and safety of all participants for an organized sport, must ensure that all competitions and practices comply with these requirements,” Hertel said.
Even in situations when it’s not required, the strict testing protocol is recommended by MDHHS.
Hertel said additional guidances will be released by Monday to help teams and parents prepare to resume under the new rules.
“This guidance will include a a recommendation that attendance be limited to two spectators per athlete to reduce the risk of COVID-19,” Hertel said.
‘Let Them Play’ responds
The attorney for the Let Them Play Michigan coalition released the following statement following the announcement that contact sports will resume:
“Let Them Play Michigan appreciates Director Hertel’s efforts to move this important issue forward in a timely manner. The lack of high school sports has had a negative impact on young people all around this state and we are confident that sports can resume safely with precautions in place.
“We will need to review the details of the order issued today to determine the impact it will have on student athletes and their families across the state. After review, and if appropriate, we will take necessary action to dismiss the lawsuit.”
Fight to play
Parents, coaches and athletes involved in contact sports that were shut down due to the pandemic started to voice their desire to return over the last few months.
Some of the state’s most high-profile basketball figures, including Michigan coach Juwan Howard and Oakland coach Greg Kampe, have thrown their weight behind the movement.
Basketball, hockey, wrestling, competitive cheer and youth leagues had been restricted to non-contact activities only.
Contact sports were banned unless all participants, teams and venues followed an enhanced virus testing regimen, as conducted by pro and college leagues, or a pilot testing program, which allowed fall sports tournaments to finish. the recent completion of fall high school tournaments that had been suspended.
One lawsuit filed against the state health director claims the high school sports shutdown might have contributed to the death of a teen hockey player.
Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, wrote a letter to the governor urging her to let winter sports resume.
“To be direct, winter ‘contact’ sports need to start,” Vitti wrote.
While he wrote that he supports Whitmer’s call for school districts to reopen for in-person learning by March 1, Vitti said the suspension of contact sports is contradictory.
“The continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports contradicts the message that it is safe to return to in-person learning,” Vitti wrote. “One only needs to ask any winter ‘contact’ sport athlete and they will tell you we are sending mixed and contradictory messages to them.”
The “Let Them Play” coalition protested the ban last weekend and was expected to be back for another hearing with the same message. Their lawsuit asked a judge to grant an injunction, sending high school athletes back into action, not just practice.