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GAME ON: Governor, MDHHS amend epidemic order, allowing start of winter’s indoor contact sports

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 4, 2021, 1:36 pm

Game on.

After nearly two weeks of improved communication between the two governing bodies disputing over the status of indoor contact high school sports and a whole lot of voices raised in support of them starting, the remainder of the winter season can now begin.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, announced the amendment of its most current epidemic order in a news conference on Thursday, allowing the start four contact winter sports — boys and girls basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer — on Monday, Feb. 8, as long as masks are worn at all times. 

“Going forward, it’s critical that we keep working together on an agreement that leverages every single resource and federal dollar available to support Michigan’s communities, Michigan’s businesses, Michigan’s students and educators, so that we can recover from this pandemic. I remain ready to work with anyone who wants to focus on these goals — these are not partisan goals, these are Michigan goals. And while it’s important we remain cautious, and adhere to safety protocols, to prevent this virus from spreading once more, thanks to our efforts — and I mean ALL of our efforts — we are ready to take a few steps forward, in returning to some normal, day-to-day activities,”Whitmer said at Thursday’s news conference. 

“I know these past months have been tough on all of us, and I know they’ve been really hard on student-athletes, who have been missing a sense of connection and belonging, as well as many other attributes that playing sports provides. I appreciate the passion of our young athletes, and the desire that they share to get back in the game that they love. Here in Michigan, we all love sports — it’s part of our DNA. And throughout this time, we’ve been watching our numbers closely to make sure that we do achieve forward progress, and we are continuing to make it possible for students to get back to in-person learning, as well, no later than March 1, is the goal.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association, which had been pushing for the amendment of the epidemic order which had delayed the start of those sports until at least Feb. 21, held its own news conference later in the afternoon, updating the start times for the four sports — staggered throughout next week — as well as everything the organization currently knows about the testing regimens and mask usage required by the newest iteration of the epidemic order. 

“I’m excited that we’re at this point where we can take this step. It is thanks to all of you, who have been careful and taken steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. We know this hasn’t been easy, and we thank you. And so we are counting on everyone to help make this work, so we won’t eventually have to take steps backward again,” new MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel said. “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 competitions and practices comply with these requirements. And even when it is not required, sports organizations are encouraged to administer a testing protocol, as specified in our interim guidance for athletics. … We are excited to make this step forward, but coaches, players, parents and even officiants, we need to work together to make this successful. It will take all of us sticking to the new rules for practice and game day.”

According to the graphic (at left) put out by the MDHHS, contact sports that can be played with a mask can begin on Feb. 8. If masks cannot be worn, participants must be tested according to a protocol which the MDHHS will release in a guidance document on Sunday, Feb. 7. 

“I’m pleased to announce that, because of the steps that we’ve taken, and because of your actions, as well, our numbers are in a place where we can allow kids to get back in the game with their coaches and teammates. So after receiving input from doctors, from coaches, from students, from parents — and legislative leaders — today DHHS is issuing a new epi order that will allow sports teams to begin in-person practice on Monday, Feb. 8, as long as masks are worn at all times. Teams can also compete in-person, with masks, if possible, or where masks are not compatible with the competition, they will be allowed to compete without masks, if certain strict safety protocols are in place, including a testing regimen,” Whitmer said. 

“So this is exciting news, and I’m so glad that our kids are going to be able to get back to playing the sports that they love. It’s also important to remember that, as we take this step, we must remain vigilant. At the end of the day, what’s been most important throughout this process, in making sure that our kids can play, is that we keep them safe, as they do. We don’t want them to put their own health, or the health of their families, at risk. It’s critical that we get this right, so that our kids and educators can return to the classroom safely, so that our small businesses can stay re-engaged and our state economy can recover.”

While Whitmer expressed her appreciation for the efforts of the student-athletes to advocate for themselves — and included River Rouge senior Legend Geeter in the news conference — she also noted that the lawsuit by the “Let Them Play” group, as well as the rally at the capital last weekend didn’t impact her decision as much as the science had.

“None. … I’ve been very clear throughout this crisis that we were going to follow the science, and that’s what we have been doing. I understand that there are many different groups, at various different times over the last 11 months who have made their case publicly, but the fact of the matter is, if anyone watched how I have conducted myself and the way that we have navigated COVID, it’s that we have been absolutely committed to following the science,” Whitmer said, noting a recent visit to Michigan-based vaccine producer Pfizer. 

“Their motto is ‘Science will win.’ If we follow the science, we protect lives. If we follow the science, we can safely re-engage more sections and activities of life that we enjoy and that we all crave. …

“As for events that have happened, that’s not what drives decisions in my administration. It’s the science, and I’m proud to say that the pause has worked. We are a leader regionally, we are a leader nationally. We’re in a strong enough position that we can do this safely. … We want our student-athletes to be successful, and I’m really proud that we’re at this moment now, that the numbers tell us that this is a safe step to take.”

The science has shown falling numbers across the board over the duration of the pause. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, noted that, as of Wednesday, there had been 563,893 cases and 14,704 deaths from COVID-19 in the state, but that the numbers in all broad metrics had been steadily declining over the past 24 days.

Cases are currently at 159 per million, and are below 150 per million in three areas: Detroit Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula.

The state’s positivity rate is at 4.9 percent, the lowest since mid-October, and the percent of hospital beds utilized for COVID-19 patients is at 6.6 percent.

“Overall, I’m pleased. We’re continuing to open our economy. Michiganders are doing their part by wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and socially distancing. And because we continue to see our metrics trending in the right direction, we can move forward with allowing contact sports practices and competitions, with specific public health measures in place, like masks and testing,” Dr. Khaldun 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 families’ lives. But we also know that one of the most important things we can do right now is to have our children be able to learn in person. As we continue to re-engage, it is critical that everyone adheres to these important public health measures, so we can prevent outbreaks, not just on our sports teams, but in our schools, as well.”