It’s been more than two months since the sports world shut down due to the new coronavirus pandemic. As individual-type sports like golf and auto racing are now resuming on the professional level — without fans in attendance — fans and athletes of all kinds are hopeful that team sports can return in the fall.
That includes at the high school level where, in Utah and most other states nationwide, the 2020 spring sports season was cut down well before any championships could be decided.
As the Utah High School Activities Association will surely deliberate often about when and how to bring back high school competitions for the 2020-21 school year, the National Federation of High School Associations, or NFHS, released a comprehensive document Tuesday to help guide states in the process — a blueprint of considerations and steps to take in safely resuming sports activities as recommended by its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, or SMAC.
“The NFHS SMAC believes it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition,” the document reads. “The NFHS SMAC endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely.”
The document outlines sets of guidelines for different phases of health conditions and offers some insight of what it might take for high school sports to return in Utah, both for practices and games.
The UHSAA isn’t beholden to the NFHS recommendations; the NFHS guide says it is intended to help state associations design return-to-activity plans.
General recommendations include the elimination of pre- and postgame handshake lines, wiping down shared balls and equipment frequently, and allowing officials and sideline/courtside workers to wear masks.
It asks state associations to consider if they will go ahead with athletic competition if schools are still closed to in-person instruction. So far, the UHSAA has indicated in-person school openings and the resumption of sports are closely connected, perhaps inseparably so.
It recommends scheduling be done in a way that requires less travel, to maximize the number of regional scheduling opportunities and to minimize the time people spend together in buses or vans.
It says, due to the “near certainty” of recurrent outbreaks this fall and winter in some places, that state associations should prepare for circumstances like periodic school closures or some teams having to isolate during a season.
The NFHS guidelines also ask state associations to consider that, until a vaccine or “very effective treatment” is available or herd immunity is confidently reached, that social distancing measures and face coverings will be the “new normal” if practices and contests are to continue.
The document points out that changes to testing availability, contact tracing capabilities and expanded knowledge about the coronavirus and of COVID-19 transmission could result in significant changes to its recommendations.
PHASES OF ACTIVITY
The NFHS details three phases of activity based on local health conditions related to the pandemic, and says moves from one phase to another should be determined by local health authorities.
Phase 1, the most restrictive phase, outlines preworkout screenings that include temperature checks and recording responses to screening questions. It says vulnerable individuals (65 or older, or with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, asthma and lung conditions, and compromised immune systems) should not participate in or oversee workouts.
Locker rooms should be closed, workout groups of 10 or less should be established and scheduled separately from other groups, and participants must maintain separation of 6 feet and not share equipment.
Phase 2 — most similar to Utah’s current “yellow” stage of public health recommendations — says “low risk” sports practices and competitions can resume.
Phase 2 recommends the same pre-workout screenings and participation limitations as Phase 1 and opens locker rooms to use, provided proper sanitization and social distancing conditions are met. It allows for up to 50 people to participate in an outdoor activity but maintains indoor activity to 10 or less people.
Phase 3 allows for “moderate risk” sports practices and competitions to begin. It says epidemiology data and experiences at other levels of competition should determine when “higher risk” sports may resume.
Phase 3 removes pre-workout screenings but says fever or cold symptoms in the previous 24 hours should preclude a person from participating. Records should be kept of all individuals present at a workout or game, and vulnerable individuals can participate with social distancing. No more than 50 people should participate indoors or outdoors.
In all three phases, surfaces and equipment should be sanitized between uses, water bottles should not be shared, hand sanitizer should be readily available to all personnel and locker room showers should be closed.
LEVEL OF RISK
Using a modification of United States Olympic Committee parameters, the NFHS categorized sports into the following levels of risk to help guide state associations in making decisions about each one, as outlined in the above list of phases.
Higher Risk — sports that involve close, sustained contact and high level of probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants: football, wrestling, competitive cheer, dance and boys lacrosse.
Moderate Risk — sports that involve intermittent close contact, or sustained contact but can have protective measures in place to reduce likelihood of respiratory particle transmission: basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, girls lacrosse, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump.
Lower Risk — sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment: golf, cross country (with staggered starts), individual running events, individual throwing events, individual swimming, sideline cheer.
The NFHS document says state and local guidelines for face coverings should be strictly followed in any proposed resumption of high school sports.
It recommends that athletes who prefer to wear face coverings during competition should be allowed to do so except in swimming, distance running and other high-intensity aerobic activity. It recommends face coverings be used in Phases 1 and 2. In Phase 3, face coverings can be used while sitting on the bench, in the locker room or in a training room.
It also says coaches, officials and other personnel should be allowed to wear face coverings at all times.
WHO’S ALLOWED AT EVENTS?
The NFHS recommends state associations should group people into tiers, then decide which groups should be allowed at different types of events. Its recommended tiers are:
Tier 1 (essential): athletes, coaches, officials, event staff, medical staff, security
Tier 2 (preferred): media
Tier 3 (nonessential): spectators and vendors
The document says only Tier 1 and 2 groups will be allowed at events until local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.