New guidelines by EEA state no games, competitive practices for football and other high school sports without distancing changes

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The prospects of traditional high school or youth football in the state this fall took another hit Thursday, as the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) announced updates to its safety standards for youth and amateur sports.

The new set of guidelines for facility operators and sports organizers do not allow for competitive practices or contests in sports that are deemed "higher" or "moderate" risk without significant changes to distance guidelines, and the EEA clarified that "this guidance applies to K-12 school and other youth sports activities."

"Higher risk" sports are defined as "sports or activities for which there is a requirement or a substantial likelihood of routine close ... or deliberate physical contact between participants," while "moderate risk" sports involved "intermittent close proximity or limited, incidental physical contact."

Other high-risk sports include wrestling, rugby, ice hockey and competitive cheer. Volleyball and soccer were listed as "moderate risk" sports, while golf and cross country are considered "lower risk."

The challenge for higher and moderate risk sports in their attempts to get back to competition, is that the EEA's guidelines sets a Minimum Mandatory Standards for Modification of Play that would severely change the way these sports are typically played.

Per the EEA, in order for moderate and higher risk activities to reach competitive practice or competition levels of play, they must "modify play to limit contact or increase distancing for participants where there is intermittent close participant proximity and/or sustained face to face contact between participants. Modifications should strive to keep participants 6 feet apart for the majority of play and must eliminate all deliberate contact."

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association issued a statement shortly after the EEA's announcement, saying that the organization is aware of the guidelines and is waiting for more guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education before issuing a decision on the fall sports season.

Currently, fall sports are scheduled to begin on Sept. 14, although the MIAA's Sports Medicine Committee has recommended pushing that date back to Sept. 16. The board still has to approve that recommendation before it takes effect.

The MIAA's board of directors had previously established a timeline to convene no later than three business days after the "release of the DESE guidelines" to provide an update on the fall sports season.

In a July 21 meeting, Jeffrey C. Riley, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the board that "if we can do sports, we'd certainly like to do that, only if we feel like it can be done in a safe way. That may mean that we may have to modify sports. I'm not sure. We've got to really make some decisions about what athletics will look like."

In its guidelines, the EEA included three examples of how sports can modify play to increase distancing, including "stagger starts" for race-like activities, "eliminate deliberate contact," and "minimize intermittent contact."

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Deliberate contact, per the EEA, includes "but is not limited to" collisions, checking, tackling, blocking or racing in packs.

To minimize intermittent contact, "Game situations that result in intermittent close physical or face-to-face contact must be modified or eliminated, including: restarts, face-offs, throw-ins, scrums for the ball/puck, or similar activities. These activities may be allowed if face masks are used during contact (e.g., face-offs could take place with face masks worn by each player involved)."

Those rules put football, in particular, in a tough place to find approval because of the close-contact nature of the sport. Other states have tried to mitigate COVID-19 concerns in football by pushing the sport back to the spring, or modifying the sport to 7-on-7 touch football, like Vermont is doing.

The new EEA guidelines say that the ability to participate in sports and recreational activities in Phase 3, Step 1 was determined by the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the sport or activity, the level of risk associated with the "'Type of Play' without modifications to play, and whether a "sport or activity can 'Modify Play' to reduce the risk."

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The guidelines establish four levels for types of play that are allowed:

— Level 1: Individual or socially distanced group activities (non- contact workouts, aerobic conditioning, individual skill work, and drills)

— Level 2: Competitive Practices (Intra-team/group games, contact drills, and scrimmages)

— Level 3: Competitions (Inter-team games, meets, matches, races, etc.)

— Level 4: Tournaments (Outdoor only)

Sports that are lower risk can take part in all four levels — meaning competitions are possible. Moderate risk and higher risk sports can participate in Level 1 as "traditionally played," but cannot go to Level 2 or Level 3 until the Minimum Mandatory Standards for Modification of Play are met.

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The EEA is also telling activity organizers that they "must require facial coverings to be worn while engaged in an activity wherever possible."

The EEA acknowledged that some sports require "intense aerobic activity," and in those sports, it is required players use facial coverings when possible. As an example, the EEA uses soccer and says players should have a covering with them at all times, but can remove it "for long runs down the field, for plays without close contact, and in the goal."

All athletes on the bench during play will be required to wear facial coverings, and active players will have to wear masks during huddles or timeouts. Coaches, staff, referees and other officials are also required to wear facial coverings, and maintain 6 feet of social distance.

The EEA did allow some wiggle room to allow teams to move toward a modified Level 2, with a provision for sports that cannot modify play to limit contact.

"Moderate and Higher risk activities and sports that cannot implement the mandatory modifications ... can participate in modified Level 2 play. Level 2 play can take place for sports with close physical or face to face contact using a cohort concept for competitive contact practices or training."

The activities must be performed in cohorts of the same small group, and each small group cannot interact "with other individuals or cohorts."

The cohorts can be no larger than 10 participants, and the cohorts must stay the same for every training session or class. Participants cannot be a member of multiple cohorts, nor can assignments rotate.

Training areas must also be marked to keep cohorts separated in all directions by at least 14 feet, and "class sizes should be capped by the number of available training areas based on the size of the facility and in no event more than 25 people on a playing surface."

The only way cohorts can compete against each other, is if each cohort performs separately from the others, and no contact occurs between cohorts.

Geoff Smith can be reached at gsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.


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