Winter sports season can start Monday, Whitmer says

Coronavirus

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The high school winter sports season may begin Monday with mandatory mask wearing and other coronavirus mitigation protocols, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday.

“Our (coronavirus) numbers are now in a place where we can allow our kids to get back in the game with their coaches and teammates,” Whitmer said in announcing the revised epidemic order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Games for basketball and ice hockey will start Monday, Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Director Mark Uyl said in a virtual press conference after the state’s announcement. Competitive cheer and wrestling meets will have to wait until Friday, Feb. 12.

“We are greatly appreciative of (state officials) taking the information, receiving the data that we’ve communicated over the last week to 10 days, and are incredibly pleased and grateful with the new order that goes into effect on Monday so our winter kids can all move forward,” Uyl said. “We have consistently that when we were ready to play, we would play, so we’re excited about those sports beginning early next week.”

The dates for tournaments will remain as previously announced: Finals will be April 9 and 10 for girls and boys basketball, respectively; March 26 and 27 for competitive cheer; March 27 for ice hockey; and April 2 and 3 for wrestling.

In addition to wearing masks, the MDHHS order requires everyone to stand 6 feet apart when not actively playing and caps game attendance to 250 in stadiums with less than 10,000 seats and 500 fans in stadiums with more than 10,000 states.

In sports where masks can’t be worn and social distancing can’t be maintained — specifically wrestling — participants must be tested under MDHHS guidance. Even in sports where players are masked, districts are encourages to launch testing programs.

“We are excited to be able to make this step forward, but coaches, players, parents and even officiants, we have to work together to make this successful. It takes us all sticking to the new rules for practice and game day,” MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said at a press conference alongside the governor in Lansing. “Our health and epidemiology teams will continue to monitor the data related to this order and our guidance. But with your partnership, we hope to stay on this course and avoid returning to a pause in play.”

She added that additional guidance would be released this weekend “to help teams and families prepare to comply with the new rules.”

The current MDHHS order extends through March 29.

“As we continue to reengage, 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,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said.

Asked by News 8 what specifically changed between last week and this week to prompt the change in the MDHHS order, Hertel cited improving virus metrics.

“As we watch those case rates decline, we feel that we can safely open up these other activities as long as we continue ensure that we’re putting our mitigation measures in place,” she said.

Let Them Play Michigan, a group that had been encouraging a quick start to the season and filed a court complaint against Hertel to try to force it, canceled a press conference that had been scheduled for Thursday afternoon. It said once it reviews the latest order, it may dismiss its complaint.

“Let Them Play Michigan appreciates Director Hertel’s efforts to move this important issue forward in a timely manner. The lack of high school sports has had a negative impact on young people all around this state and we are confident that sports can resume safely with precautions in place.

“We will need to review the details of the order issued today to determine the impact it will have on student athletes and their families across the state. After review, and if appropriate, we will take necessary action to dismiss the lawsuit.”

Let Them Play Michigan

Whitmer said pressure from that group, including a weekend protest at the state Capitol, did not play a role in the decision to allow winter sports earlier than the previous date of Feb. 22.

“I’ve been very clear throughout this crisis that we are going to follow the science, and that’s what we have been doing,” Whitmer said. “I understand that there are many different groups at various different times over the last 11 months who have made their case publicly. The fact of the matter is if anyone’s 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.”

“Today marks a victory for students, parents and school officials who have been pleading with the governor for weeks to let them play.

“Last week, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 7 urging Gov. Whitmer to lift the suspension of high school and youth sports. Senate Republicans know the important role sports play in contributing to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of young people. We knew it was imperative that the governor allow young athletes the opportunity to compete.

“The Senate Republicans would like to be optimistic about this change in policy, but that largely depends upon the guidance that is yet to be issued by the administration. We are expecting clear and uncomplicated guidance for youth sports to be able to start their seasons, quickly.

“No one can deny the negative impact of forced closures and arbitrary restrictions on our citizens and communities, and we will continue to urge the governor to eliminate such policies.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake

Whitmer on Thursday also created the COVID-19 Student Recovery Advisory Council, which will help advise the state on helping children overcome a difficult school year and associated learning loss. It has 29 appointed members, including Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston, Calhoun Intermediate School District regional school health coordinator Angela Blood Starr, Berrien County Health Department Health Officer Nicole Britten, National Heritage Academies vice president of government relations Nicholas Paradiso and Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink.

THURSDAY EPIDEMIC DATA

The state on Thursday reported 1,358 more confirmed cases of the virus and 74 more related deaths.

Of those deaths, 63 were discovered when MDHHS reviewed death certificates to find any that had not already been reported to the state.

In all, the virus has infected 565,251 people in Michigan since March 2020 and contributed to 14,778 deaths.

On Wednesday, labs in Michigan tested 49,528 samples for the virus and 1,680 were positive. That works out to a 3.39% positivity rate, the lowest it has been since Oct. 7.

The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.

Kent County reported four more deaths for a total of 614 and confirmed 97 more cases for a total of 46,965 since the start of the pandemic.

Several other West Michigan counties recorded additional deaths:

  • Berrien County: One more death for 207 total; 10,209 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Kalamazoo County: One more death for 276 total; 12,685 total cases.
  • Muskegon County: One more death for 292 total; 10,151 total cases.
  • Newaygo County: One more death for 44 total; 2,544 total cases.
  • Oceana County: One more death for 47 total;1,745 total cases.
  • Ottawa County: One more death for 303 total; 20,284 total cases.
  • St. Joseph County: Two more deaths for 74 total; 4,019 total cases.

Wayne County, where Detroit is, reported 15 more deaths for a total of 3,803 and confirmed 225 more cases for a total of 91,109 in the last about 11 months. Neighboring Oakland County has had 62,247 confirmed cases (121 more than the previous day) and 1,807 deaths (five more). Macomb County has had 53,336 cases (108 more) and 1,790 deaths (17 more).

B.1.1.7 VARIANT

Dr. Khaldun said Michigan has now confirmed 28 cases of the COVID-19 variant labeled B.1.1.7 in Washtenaw and Wayne counties on the southeast side of the state.

Later Thursday, Kalamazoo County announced it had also confirmed one case.

That variant spreads more easily than the dominant strain we’ve been dealing with.

“If this variant becomes more common, as national experts predict it could, then we could see a very rapid rise in cases and more hospitalizations and deaths,” she warned. “We’re working very closely with our local health departments to make sure we are aggressively identifying any potential outbreaks and slowing the spread of this variant as much as possible.”

  

Michigan’s case, positivity, hospitalization and death rates are all coming down. Still, they’re higher than public health officials would like to see.

Khaldun reminded people not to have large parties to watch the Super Bowl this weekend. She said avoiding large gatherings is what kept Michigan from having serious post-holiday surges in cases. If people do gather, she said, it should be in groups of no more than two households, wear masks and wash their hands frequently.

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