By Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
A new trend of favorable COVID-19 metrics in Michigan has led the state to allow youth contact sports to resume, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday.
“I’m pleased to share because of the steps that we’ve taken, and because of your actions as well, our 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 during a press conference.
The amended epidemic order will allow contact sports, including ice hockey, basketball, wrestling and soccer, to resume on Monday. Practices and competitions must adhere to certain safety guidelines including masking, team testing and other precautionary measures.
“Contact sports, like other activities where participants gather and interact in close proximity across multiple households, naturally pose a higher risk of COVID-19, and it remains our responsibility to protect public health,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Elizabeth Hertel.
“However, as Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers trend down and we continue to understand best practices to reduce spread in close contact-like settings … we believe there are opportunities to be agile and resume youth sports with a combination of public health measures and testing in place.”
As of Wednesday, Michigan reports a total of 563,893 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 14,704 deaths. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for DHHS, said the state has been watching numbers closely and has seen progress in containing the virus.
There are currently 159 COVID-19 cases per million, a rate which has been “declining steadily” over the past 24 days. Khaldun also noted that test positivity has been declining and now hangs at 4.9% — the lowest it has been since mid-October.
The state has administered a total of 1,076,545 vaccine doses to Michiganders as of Wednesday.
Whitmer, Hertel and Khaldun all urged caution and vigilance with the new allowance of contact sports. Participants must be masked at all times during play or practice, and if they are not able to be worn, all participants must undergo a team testing program.
Sports organizers are encouraged to administer a testing program either way, even if they are not required to.
Non-contact sports where distancing can be maintained and masks are not possible can continue without changes.
Vocal advocates largely aligned with the GOP have been fighting for weeks for Whitmer to re-allow youth sports. That includes the group “Let Them Play,” led by Jayme McElvany, who came under fire recently after the Advance reported that her social media presence is filled with QAnon rhetoric, conspiracy theories and COVID-19 skepticism.
The group sued the DHHS on Tuesday for violating various constitutional freedoms by not allowing contact sports and now says it will make a decision whether or not to continue legal action.
After Whitmer’s announcement Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) called the move a “victory for students, parents and school officials” but still criticized Whitmer for not providing clear enough guidance — even though that guidance is spelled out in the amended epidemic order.
“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,” Shirkey said.
“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.”
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