Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday that indoor contact sports may resume soon as long as safety measures are followed.
Whitmer said sports can continue on full go on Monday as long as masks are worn. If masks are not worn, student-athletes must undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
“I’m so glad that our kids are going to be able to get back into playing the sports that they love,” Whitmer said. “It’s also important to remember that as we take this step, we must remain vigilant. At the end of the day, what has been most important throughout this process in making sure our kids can play is that we keep them safe as they do.”
A new state health order issued Thursday allows for the resumption of practice and games for sports such as basketball, hockey and competitive cheer.
The order says masks must be worn by athletes during games and practice, “unless it would be unsafe for participants to remain masked.” If that is the case, then athletes must be tested in accordance with guidance that has yet to be issued.
That guidance is expected by Sunday, said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Acting Director Elizabeth Hertel.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said recent COVID-19 trends are promising. That includes case rates declining for nearly a month and the lowest test positivity rate since October.
“We’ll continue to watch the numbers … but we do think there is a way for athletes to be able to participate in the safest way possible,” Khaldun said.
However, Hertel could not say exactly what changed in recent days to make the state change course.
“We continue to see a downward trend in our case rates, and that our hospital capacity is in a position where our hospitals are not feeling overwhelmed,” Hertel said.
“As we watch those case rates decline, we feel we can safely open up these activities, as long as we continue to put our mitigation measures in place.”
Later Thursday, the MHSAA announced that competition for boys and girls basketball and hockey could begin as soon as Monday and wrestling and competitive cheer on Feb. 12.
Pressure started to mount for a resumption of sports in January, after Whitmer announced a return to indoor dining but left in place the moratorium on indoor contact sports through at least Feb. 21.
Republican lawmakers, school administrators, parents, athletes and others argued there were safe ways to conduct sports such as basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer. They said Michigan was an outlier in not allowing these sports, and the ban was exacerbating mental health issues among young adults already challenged by an unprecedented year.
Whitmer, state and national health experts argue there is data indicating indoor contact sports are some of the most at-risk activities for spreading COVID-19. The CDC recommends limiting “high-intensity sports when indoors.”
It recently released a report on high school wrestling tournaments from December in Florida that became superspreader events. At least 79 infections and one death were tied to the tournaments, according to the CDC report. It also estimated 1,700 in-person school days were lost because of the students who needed to isolate and quarantine during the outbreak.
“High-contact school athletic activities for which mask wearing and physical distancing are not possible should be postponed during periods with substantial or high levels of SARS-CoV-2 community transmission,” the report concluded.
Hundreds of opponents to the ban gathered over the weekend outside the state Capitol in Lansing. Several parents and athletes filed a lawsuit this week as well, asking a court to essentially revoke the ban on indoor contact sports.
Peter Ruddell, an attorney representing the legal efforts to restore sports, thanked the state for its actions.
“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,” Ruddell said in a statement.
Last week, Democratic and Republican lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the state to allow indoor sports to resume. While parents, athletes and some school administrators were allowed to testify about the negative impacts of the ban, no committees heard from scientists, health experts or anyone from the Whitmer administration.
House Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, said Thursday that Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail was prevented from testifying by the GOP chairman of the House Oversight Committee during a hearing last week.
“It’s a direct contradiction and it’s evident this is nothing more than a kangaroo court. You only get to testify if you fit a preconceived narrative,” Brixie said in a news release.
“Oversight should be rigorously and thoroughly seeking expert testimony. Instead, we’re silencing experts and giving ideological extremes a platform. It’s clear health experts only testify if the committee wants to attack them on a narrow line of questioning, but if we’re discussing epidemiology and ways to mitigate spread of the virus, they can stay home.”
House Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would strip away the authority of the state health department to ban sporting events because of COVID-19. While the measure gives that authority to local health departments, it also sets a litany of COVID-19 criteria that must be met before any cancellation could be ordered.
Vail blasted the proposal in a recent Free Press interview, saying lawmakers should allow local experts to decide what is best for the health of their communities.
Contact Dave Boucher: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.