Optimism grows as Cuomo puts the fate of high-risk sports in the hands of local officials
News that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was leaving the last word on high-risk winter sports to local officials inspired a jolt of adrenaline.
Phones were instantly buzzing across the Lower Hudson Valley.
"My whole team was excited," said New Rochelle basketball standout Promise Opurum. "We were all excited, really excited. One of my teammates put the news in the group chat and we all couldn’t believe it. ... I definitely tried to stay optimistic, but it wasn’t looking so good. ... Just knowing I have a chance to get back on the court with my teammates, it feels really good."
Cuomo established Feb. 1 as the start date, pending approval from local health officials.
The height of that final hurdle remains unclear as local COVID-19 rates, local ability to monitor compliance with protocols and whether or not the U.K. strain of the coronavirus is present within the area must be considered.
It's not a position any of the local health officials expected to be in.
"We were not given any advance notice, we were not consulted in any way and we weren’t aware the decision was going to be made today," Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said. "That said, we’ve been monitoring youth sports in other states. We cannot point to any area of a higher transmission concern as long as precautions are taken.
"We’ll review whatever guidelines come to us – we just saw them now. Our health department will review those guidelines and we are likely to proceed with letting them play."
Officials in Westchester and Rockland will be undertaking a similar revue.
"Having just been made aware of the updated NYSDOH guidance, we will take the time to closely review the new requirements and factors that would allow for the authorization of higher-risk sports here in Rockland," County Commissioner of Health Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert said. "This is yet another mandate put on the already overworked local health departments of New York state, but we will address this new and unexpected requirement as soon as we are able to do so."
Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler returns from a brief medical leave next week.
There will be some urgency to review the data as schools need a week to prepare.
"We would really need to look at the situation because there have been some issues with spread at after-school sports events," Amler said.
According to Section 1 Executive Director Todd Santabarbara, the new guidance from the state Department of Health applies to football, volleyball, cheerleading and boys lacrosse.
"If we get the green light for a Feb. 1 start and can provide the opportunity for all those student-athletes to have some sort of season, and the length could vary from season to season, I think there is definitely an opportunity here to move forward for each of those three seasons," he said.
The new directive also paves the way for the return of club and travel competitions, but there are some caveats in place that could limit travel outside the region.
A handful of athletes tested positive following soccer games in the fall season, prompting lengthy quarantines for both teams. Cuomo announced Sunday the coronavirus variant first discovered in the United Kingdom that is potentially more contagious has been found in Westchester County.
Orange County Commissioner of Health Irina Gelman and Putnam County Commissioner of Health Michael J. Nesheiwat were unavailable for comment on Friday.
"We finally have some kind of direction," FDR-Hyde Park Athletic Director Thomas Cunningham said. "They have to approve what sports we can start on that day, but it’s a possible start date and it gives us some hope.
"Following all the guidelines and taking precautions, I think we can do it safely. Our coaches and staff have been preparing for the possibility. I do think it’s doable. ... We'd be ready to start practice in 10 days if given the go-ahead. We can get that done.”
Preparations have already been made for a number of scenarios.
There will be new return-to-play guidelines and protocols specific to each high-risk sport issued by the NYSPHSAA on Monday.
Santabarbara will be meeting with the Section 1 executive committee on Monday, as well. He is hoping to begin a dialogue with all four health commissioners involved. There will also be a discussion about the starting and ending dates for each season, which need to be established before moving on to items like tournament play.
Many of the logistical details like setting up leagues and scheduling those contests have already been completed.
"For the winter, we’re in pretty good shape," Santabarbara said. "We have a good majority of the winter schedules loaded into the system. We’ve have requests out to officials to update their availability."
Mike Chiapparelli believes the vaccine rollout and heightend adherence to the protocals in place are increasing the likelihood of salvaging the season. He's beginning his 34th season as the hockey coach at Mamaroneck and already has a plan to maintain social-distancing while rotating lines.
“We’re in a lot safer situation than we were in the fall," he said. "We can work it out. I think we can keep it safe."
The high-risk sports are currently allowed to conduct socially-distanced training sessions and non-contact drills.
"We can have one girl with one ball at each basket right now," Tappan Zee girls basketball coach Riley Chevrier said. "We go again on Tuesday and I know the girls are going to be so excited."
The enthusiasm has to be tempered until each of the four counties give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Individual school districts will have the last word. Some are not yet back in classrooms.
"I mean, there's been a lot of punting going on so it doesn't surprise me," Cornwall girls basketball coach Chris Miller said of the latest development. "I would just like to see somebody take a leadership role here and get this thing going. I feel terrible for these kids. It's killing them. I got three text messages from players in the last hour saying, 'Can we play? Can we play? Can we play?' So it's frustrating. ... Will you get the okay from the county health department? I don't know. Will the schools okay it? I don't know. Will the superintendent? I don't know. You know, I think there's a lot of other hurdles to climb here."
Mike Dougherty covers boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls basketball and golf for The Journal News/lohud.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @hoopsmbd, @lohudlacrosse, @lohudhoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.