California quietly issues youth sports guidance for return to games

Football at Mission Bay High and elsewhere in California received new guidelines for when it can return.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sports are grouped by physical contact levels and a county’s risk tier


Nine months after shutting down youth, high school and adult recreational sports, the California Department for Public Health quietly issued a detailed guidance Monday, Dec. 14, creating a pathway to resume competition in the state.

Just don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

No competitions are allowed before Jan. 25, although that date will be reassessed by Jan. 4. And a sport’s authorization is based on levels of physical contact and a county’s color tier of COVID-19 risk.

If corn hole or lawn bowling were high school sports, they could begin their seasons in late January. But football and especially basketball will need a significant reduction of COVID-19 case rates in nearly all of California’s 58 counties to play.

Youth sports leaders have been asking the state for a detailed guidance since April. The CDPH issued a brief document in August that permitted conditioning practices with distancing and safety protocols but did not allow competition or differentiate between sports, leaving California one of a handful of states not allowed to play games.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports, canceled fall competitions and compacted the traditional three seasons into two, with practice for football and others in the new “winter” session scheduled to begin Dec. 12.

On Dec. 1, the CIF postponed that until January because, it said in a statement, “it does not expect the CDPH will issue any guidance allowing for schools to return to full practice and competition until after Jan. 1, 2021, at the earliest.”

Thirteen days later, the CDPH posted a guidance on its website with little fanfare.

“It’s a surprise because they said there would be no word before Jan. 1,” CIF San Diego Section Commissioner Joe Heinz said Monday night, Dec. `14. “But this is par for the course. I guess some news is better than no news. We would have liked to get this in October.

“We still have a chance to play. We have guidelines to work with. We’ll have to see what impact this has.”

Under the new guidance, sports are categorized by indoor or outdoor and low, moderate or high contact. They are then grouped by risk tier.

San Diego and 53 other California counties are currently in the purple or “widespread” tier and likely will require weeks, if not months, to have case metrics drop to a lower level. Only outdoor, low-contact sports are allowed in purple; those include swimming, golf, tennis, cross country and track and field.

Baseball, field hockey, girls lacrosse and softball are among outdoor, moderate-contact sports allowed in the red tier, one level below purple. Only four counties currently qualify and all are in rural parts of the state.

Football, soccer and indoor volleyball require the orange or moderate tier. Of the four counties not in the purple tier only Sierra County, which has a population of 2,987, currently qualifies. And only its two high schools could play against each other under the new regulations, not teams from outside counties.

Arguably the biggest loser in Monday’s guidance is basketball, which is classified as an indoor, high-contact activity with the greatest risk. It can only be played in the yellow tier, which is “minimal” spread of the virus with one new daily case per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate below 2 percent.

According to the most recent data, San Diego County has an adjusted rate of 27.0 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. Since the colored tier system was implemented in late August, the county has been only red or purple.

“This isn’t great news, but there are going to be a lot of changes in the next month,” said Damon Baldwin, the football coach and athletic director at Ramona High. “Honestly, we didn’t expect a 10-game football season. We’re hoping for six to eight games and limited playoffs. If vaccines are out, working and cases drop, maybe football goes April, May, June.

“I hope the powers that be save our seasons. Maybe we look at three shorter seasons, mid-February to June 15. That will kill schools that share athletes (within teams), but at least we’ll be playing. The big thing is how do we pay for things if we don’t play football, don’t have fans? Football pays for 85 to 90 percent of the bills.”

Youth club sports aren’t waiting, and hundreds of teams have traveled to Arizona, Nevada or Utah for tournaments instead. The Surf Cup, one of the world’s largest youth soccer tournaments held each summer at massive field complexes in Del Mar and Oceanside, moved to the Phoenix area in late December and early January.

The new guidance says “teams must not participate in out-of-state tournaments,” although enforcement might be difficult.

It allows for competition only between teams within the same county or neighboring counties if the color tiers in both permit that sport. All tournaments are banned, with the exception of individual sports like swimming, tennis and track and field that receive authorization from local health departments.

The guidance also says athletes “should wear face coverings when participating in the activity, even with heavy exertion as tolerated, both indoors and outdoors (unless the face covering could become a hazard).” Some volleyball clubs in the county require players to wear masks during practice, but most outdoor sports clubs do not.

— Mark Zeigler and John Maffei are reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune