Game on, and mask up

Farmington's Jayden Seifert (left) and Brenna Fuhrman reach for a loose puck during the state Class AA girls hockey tournament last February. The Tigers are among the high school winter sports teams expected to be allowed to begin practice next week. Games could start as early as Jan. 14.

State health department will allow practices to resume next week

High school and youth athletic teams will be allowed to resume practice Jan. 4, according to updated guidance released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Teams can have competitions as early as Jan. 14. The South Suburban Conference has anticipated the go-ahead and posted schedules to its website. All SSC boys hockey, boys and girls basketball and boys swimming and diving teams are scheduled to compete Jan. 14.

It will end an inactive period of more than six weeks for Minnesota high school athletics, which were shut down because of a rise in COVID-19 cases. Gov. Tim Walz ordered a “pause” on youth and high school sports that has been in effect since Nov. 21.

“We are excited for the opportunity to start both practices and contests in this winter season,” Minnesota State High School League executive director Erich Martens said. “The commitment to safety by our more than 500 member schools is critical to not only start our seasons, but to finish them as well.”

One difference is athletes in several winter sports – including basketball and hockey – will be required to wear masks during practices and games. Wrestling, swimming and diving, and certain activities in gymnastics and cheerleading will not be subject to the mask requirement because of concerns about potential choking or vision impairment.

Several other states have mandated or strongly encouraged mask wearing during competition. During Minnesota fall sports, masks were optional and most athletes chose not to wear them.

Monday’s MDH announcement did not address whether or not spectators would be allowed at indoor events. Previous guidance suggested spectators would not be permitted, but the MSHSL said it is reviewing the newest information and will provide sport-specific guidance later in the week.

Last week the state amended its restrictions on pool closures. They were to remain closed until Jan. 11 but that has been moved to Jan. 4 to allow swimming teams to start practice next week.

Concessions and entertainment will not be allowed at events at the start of the Minnesota high school winter season.

The MDH recommends that team sports practices emphasize individual skill development as much as possible to reduce the possibility of virus transmission. Pods are limited to 25 people. Carpooling and locker room use is discouraged, as is traveling out of state or to different areas of the state.

As was the case in the fall, winter teams will be limited to 70 percent of the number of competitions allowed during a normal season. For basketball and hockey, this means 18 games as opposed to 26 or 25. Games would be against mostly local competition, and multi-team tournaments would not take place. Teams would play a maximum of two games a week except near the end of the regular season, when they would be allowed three games in a week if needed to make up games that were postponed earlier.

Most winter sports would have their section tournament window in March. The state high school league has not committed to holding state tournaments for winter sports; it canceled state tourneys for 2020 fall sports.

Even with precautions, there are no guarantees against spreading the virus. The state-ordered pause of the fall sports season came during the football playoffs and before the end of the volleyball regular season.

“The masking, distancing, and other guidance provided here is intended to reduce the risk of transmission, but does not eliminate it,” the Minnesota Department of Health statement said.

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