‘Great day for Suffolk County athletics,’ as high-risk sports given OK for Feb. 1 start

High risk has its reward.

It was beginning to look doubtful that high-risk high school sports will be played in Suffolk County this school year. Then a pair of announcements over a four-day span changed everything. First, high-risk sports received authorization Friday from the New York State Department of Health to begin practice and competition on Feb. 1, if permitted by local health authorities. Then, Suffolk County gave its blessing Monday for those sports — basketball, boys lacrosse, competitive cheerleading, football, ice hockey, volleyball and wrestling — to compete this year.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced at a news conference Monday “that we will be able to have those high-risk sports return and to have our student-athletes back on the field, where they belong.”

Bellone’s announcement could be seen as a positive lift for athletes whose high-risk sports had been postponed indefinitely. His office said this decision will allow for about 21,500 Suffolk athletes to participate.

“Kids want to play, and we know the health benefits of sports to our kids, so if we can get them back on the field in a safe way and as safely as possible, we know that it will bring great benefits to them and to all of the kids who have been missing playing,” Bellone said. “So, we are today announcing that the Suffolk County Health Department is putting forward guidance that will allow our kids to return to the field, playing in what has been categorized as high-risk sports.”

Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, Suffolk’s interscholastic sports governing body, called it a “great day for Suffolk County athletics.” He said: “This is a day that we weren’t quite sure was going to happen this year, but we are ecstatic that the student-athletes will have the opportunity to play high-risk sports. Our student-athletes, coaches, officials, communities are all very, very happy for this day, and we really appreciate the collaborative approach that occurred with all of our facets here, making this possible. It’s a great example of how teamwork actually works.”

The county health department’s blessing comes with guidance that requires weekly testing of athletes, said to be the first mandatory testing for student-athletes in the state.

“Testing is critical to confronting COVID-19,” stated Bellone, who said the state has already made 20,000 rapid tests available. “It’s because of the work that we have already done that we can say with confidence that we can do this.”

Among other measures that are part of the guidance: taking temperatures of players and coaches prior to practices and games; attestations about not having COVID-19 symptoms; minimizing equipment sharing; maintaining attendance logs for players and coaches; playing in “smart spaces” (outdoors, if possible); wearing face masks whenever possible.

Athletes will also be asked to take a pledge called the “Champion of the Community Pledge.”

“This pledge essentially will send the message and reinforce the message that our conduct off the field is going to be just as important if not more important than our conduct on the field because it’s off the field, outside of the school, where we have seen the spread of this virus,” Bellone said. “I know that our student-athletes, as they have in the past, will rise to the occasion here.”

Practice for low- and-moderate-risk sports began Jan. 4. Long Island public schools didn’t play sports last fall and have opted to play three shortened sports seasons in the first half of 2021. The winter season will end Feb. 28. Fall sports will kick into action March 1 and conclude April 24. The spring season is slated to go from April 26 to June 19.

Combs said Suffolk athletic officials had determined they do not want the seasons to overlap. Suffolk athletic directors voted not to allow spectators at practices and games, he said.

All athletes need six practices to be eligible to compete, except for wrestlers, who need 10, said Combs.

“We’re ready to go,” Combs told Times Review Media Group Saturday. “We’ve been preparing for this. We knew it was going to be a tough road. We didn’t think, quite honestly, that we would have this opportunity.”

Dr. Ronald Masera, the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association president, joined Bellone and Combs in Monday’s announcement. He expressed confidence in the safe return of high-risk sports.

“I believe that one of the things that schools do very well is organize, coordinate and certainly problem-solve,” Masera said. “We have the ability to put systems in place to keep kids safe. I think we’ve proven that and I think we’ll be able to do that again.”

Bellone said a number of county parks, including Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown where Monday’s outdoor presser was held, will be opened to cross-country teams to practice and participate in meets.

“This has been an unprecedented event, a natural disaster we’re all dealing with,” Bellone said. “There’s no playbook for it. We’ve just had to work together to try to do the right thing. And, I will tell you this, and I’ve said it before, when we’ve been confronted with decisions, they’re never black and white; they’re never simple.”

“As we work through this,” he continued, “I think we all started from a place knowing that it is in the best interests of our kids, of our athletes, to get them back on the field to allow them to play the sports that they love.”