Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Monday that high-risk winter high school sports will be played and that the health department guidelines will require athletes in those sports to get weekly COVID-19 tests when they begin practice and play on Feb. 1.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran told Newsday that the county's health department also has given a go-ahead for high-risk winter sports. It is expected to issue guidelines for conducting those sports seasons very soon.
Officials in both counties have moved quickly after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Friday directive that put decisions about starting up the winter sports with high risk of coronavirus infection – deemed by his administration to be boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading – in the hands of local health authorities.
"We will be able to have those high-risk sports return [and] to have our student-athletes back on the field where they belong," Bellone said Monday at a news conference in Smithtown, where he unveiled a comprehensive plan for Suffolk crafted through collaboration with the Suffolk Department of Health, district superintendents and Section XI, the governing body for public school sports in the county.
The plan was able to include testing protocols because New York State agreed to provide the tests. It also includes temperature checks, attendance logs for practices and games, social distancing and masks for those not in competition, suggested masks for those in competition and no spectators.
Bellone is also calling on county athletes and coaches in the high-risk sports to sign a ‘Community Champion Pledge,’ committing to follow all protocols on and off the field because, he said, he wants them "doing everything they can to make sure that they’re not only keeping themselves safe, but that they're protecting others that they will be playing [with and against] as well. . . . I know our student athletes, as they have in the past, will rise to the occasion."
Section XI executive director Tom Combs said the athletics community "is very excited that kids will have this opportunity" and added that standard contact tracing, isolation and quarantines will be employed in the event of a positive test. In college basketball, positive tests have caused numerous programs to pause for 10-14 days so, in this four- to-five-week season, high school athletes will need to be vigilant.
Curran, who has long advocated for playing sports, convened on Monday with Nassau commissioner of health Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein and officials representing school district superintendents and Section VIII, the governing body for public school sports in Nassau, where the decision was made to go forward with the high-risk sports.
"Now we're tackling this," she said. "I think the surprise was in the timing. No one that I spoke to was expecting this to come. I'd certainly been advocating for it, so I found it very welcome news. . . . I think it's really important for kids to participate in normal activities and doing it under supervision on school property" is best.
Nassau County could make major strides to put a plan in place on Tuesday. Section VIII has meetings scheduled for its Athletic Council and athletic directors. Nassau County school district superintendents also have a meeting scheduled.
"This is a ‘go,’ " Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli said. "The state has approved high-risk sports to start, as has our County Executive Laura Curran. . . . . We are all waiting for the additional guidelines from Dr. Eisenstein.. . . . Once he comes up with those guidelines, we’re going to give it our best shot."
"We are eager to see the guidelines so we can move forward," Jericho superintendent Hank Grishman said. "In order to proceed, school districts need the specific guidelines from Larry Eisenstein."
Curran said that no measures had yet been taken to acquire additional tests from the state, however, Cuomo said in October that some local governments had communicated they did not have enough tests and that he responded "I've said if you need something, tell me and I'll provide it."
Even before a county edict, Baldwin plans to have testing protocols in place for a Feb. 1 start.
"Baldwin has in-house COVID testing for staff, students and households," said Ed Ramirez, athletic director for Baldwin schools. "We will be testing athletes and coaches of high-risk sports in order to participate."
A go-ahead and a set of guidance will not necessarily assure that high-risk sports are played in every Long Island school district. Each district – in Nassau and Suffolk – will determine whether it will have the high-risk sports at its high schools.
"It will be a district-by-district decision on whether to play," Curran said. "I trust the school districts to make the right decision and put the right procedures in place for themselves, I trust families to make the right decision for themselves. . . . Safety has to be the priority."
With Gregg Sarra and Owen O'Brien