Gov. J.B. Pritzker appeared to slam the door on the possible return of high school football and other sports in Illinois this fall, saying they were still too risky in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic even though athletes in other Midwestern states have begun to play.
“Fine, if they’ve decided to endanger children and families in those states by allowing certain contact sports to take place, that’s their decision,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “That’s not something that’s good for the families, the children of Illinois.”
The Illinois High School Association, deferring to state officials, moved high school football, boys soccer and girls volleyball — sports considered to be at medium to high risk of virus transmission — to the spring. But the organization recently sought to resume authority over its calendar after surrounding states began playing contact sports without reports of major outbreaks.
Following Pritzker’s remarks, Executive Director Craig Anderson said that effort is over.
“I think our hands are kind of tied with the governor saying we’re not going to proceed,” he said.
Pritzker said he was relying on “doctors and researchers to give us the information” on whether the sports are safe to resume. Neither his office nor the Illinois Department of Public Health responded to the Tribune’s request for further comment about that guidance.
The example Pritzker offered as a cautionary tale came from the Frontier Community College baseball team in the southern Illinois town of Fairfield. There, 30 players, more than half the team, recently tested positive for the virus.
But Clark Griffith, administrator of the Wayne County Health Department, said the source of the transmission didn’t appear to be team activities but the dormitory in which the players lived.
“We’re not seeing further infections in the campus setting,” he said.
That is similar to another outbreak that upset the IHSA’s return-to-play plans. In July, days after high school teams were allowed to start summer practice, Deputy Governor for Education Jesse Ruiz told the organization that physical contact between athletes was banned after a cluster of COVID-19 cases among sports camp participants at Lake Zurich High School.
Yet further investigation showed that “for the most part, that outbreak was linked to social gatherings prior to the camps,” said Hannah Goering, spokeswoman for the Lake County Health Department.
Dr. Rishi Desai, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who is chief medical officer for the health website Osmosis.org, said COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 30 people under the age of 21 nationwide who had no complicating health problems, and that sports do carry risks for transmission.
“On the (football) field, you’re in close proximity, even inches away from another player’s helmet,” he said. “You’re breathing heavily, you’re yelling in some cases, so you’re getting more virus out there if you are infected.”
Still, he was not aware of any studies that pinpoint the probability of spreading the virus during practices or games.
“To be honest, a lot of this is still very much theoretical,” he said. “The problem is that getting enough data takes time, and not enough time has passed.”
Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois computer science professor who specializes in risk assessment, has looked at the COVID-19 health risk for athletes participating in various college sports and concluded it is negligible, even for football.
He said as long as players get tested, wear masks and stay inside their “bubble” — avoiding contact with people outside of their teams — they should stave off infection.
“The safest place college athletes can be is playing their sport,” he said. “You take them out of that, you make them subject to a higher level of exposure. We have to look at the whole picture.”
He allowed that bubbles would be harder to maintain for high school athletes, and that their parents and grandparents could be at a heightened risk. But getting the opportunity to play would likely motivate the teens to be scrupulous with preventive measures, he said.
Rob Zvonar, head football coach at defending 8A state champions Lincoln-Way East, echoed that sentiment.
“There would be a much greater effort towards the safety precaution if these kids were unified and had the structure of the sport going on,” he said. “There’s no doubt there would be less risk taking if these kids were together in their structured activity.”
He and other coaches plan to rally with athletes and parents in Chicago and Springfield on Saturday, pushing for a restart to the season. Moving football and other sports to the spring would curb college recruiting opportunities and force sports normally played at that time to have truncated seasons, he said.
Brother Rice football coach Brian Badke said forgoing the fall season is also hurting athletes psychologically.
“What these kids are going through right now is traumatic,” he said. “They need to play and cheer and be active.”
Though Pritzker took a shot at other states that have decided to go forward with contact sports, saying “they all have high positivity rates” compared with Illinois, Michigan’s rate is essentially the same, at 3%.
It had also moved football, soccer and volleyball to the spring. But Geoff Kimmerly, spokesman for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said it reversed course after consulting state and national medical experts and putting together an 88-page set of safety guidelines (football, soccer and volleyball players, for instance, must wear masks when they practice and play).
Though a few teams will be inactive because of positive COVID-19 tests, Michigan will play its first high school football games this weekend, Kimmerly said.
“We think we’ve done everything we can at this point to be ready,” he said. “We have an opportunity to do something special here if we continue to do all the right things.”
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.