RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released its guidelines for high school and youth sports on Friday amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guidance covers a number of topics, including the requirement to adhere to mass gathering limits. During phase two, which also began Friday, no gathering of more than 10 people indoors and no more than 25 people outdoors is recommended.

Recommended guidelines include:

• Close or mark off all common seating areas like dugouts and bleachers or other areas that promote individuals gathering in groups.

• Clearly provide six-feet floor markings on sidelines, waiting lines, and other areas where there may be a group of people.

• Designate and arrange specific equipment for use that is properly spaced at six feet apart.

• Consider workouts in groups/pods of individuals with the same group always working out together, including weight training, to limit exposure should someone become sick.

• Remind individuals not to shake hands, give high fives, or fist pumps before, during, or after the game or practice.

• Individuals should refrain from any unnecessary physical contact with others.

• Coaches, officials, and others should modify communication and avoid up close face to face communication.

• Schedule games to include adequate buffer times between games to allow athletes, coaches and staff to enter and exit the facility with limited interaction.

• Where possible, provide separate and clearly marked points of entry and exit for spectators.

• When sinks or showers are not six feet apart, consider limiting use to every other sink or shower so individuals can maintain social distancing while using.

• Provide readily available alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol).

• Personal training services and fitness coaching should practice social distancing to the extent possible. When these services require physical contact between coach and athlete, wash hands immediately prior to and following the contact and face-to-face contact should be minimal.

The guidelines “strongly recommend” athletes, coaches, staff, and participants wear a cloth face covering when not directly engaged in physical activity.

Additional guidelines cover cleaning, hygiene, monitoring people for symptoms of coronavirus, protecting vulnerable populations, combating misinformation, and water and ventilation systems.

These guidelines are only recommendations. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has not released any information yet about the direction it will go with resuming high school sports.

The NCHSAA announced the initial suspension of the 2019-20 season back on March 12, before ultimately canceling the remainder of the season.

NCHSAA announced earlier this month that it was to end the coronavirus dead period on June 1. Before sports are allowed to resume, schools must have clearance from state and local governments, including individual school districts.

The NCHSAA Board voted unanimously Monday night (and the NCHSAA notified the membership on Tuesday) to extend the dead period at least two more weeks. The earliest the dead period could end now is June 15.

“We have been in communication with the Department of Health and Human Services concerning next steps for a return to athletic activities across the state,” The NCHSAA said in statement on Friday afternoon. “Since we have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the guidelines mentioned by the Governor (Roy Cooper) and (Secretary Mandy Cohen of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) with a broader audience in our membership, we will spend the next several days discussing options, opportunities and best practices for resuming activity with our board of directors and sports medicine advisory committee, in addition to other stakeholder groups such as principals, athletic directors, coaches groups, etc. These conversations will help us determine a more specific and detailed path forward.”

The NCHSAA held a press conference on Zoom Tuesday afternoon (see Friday's e-edition for more).

The guidelines released by NCDHHS focus on promoting activity with non-contact sports, according to Cohen.

“We know that contact sports, like basketball or football, where you’re in each other’s personal spaces, where you’re breathing out respiratory droplets on one another, we know that is a higher way of spreading the virus as opposed to non-contact sports like tennis, or baseball, or individual sports like swimming or golf,” Cohen said in a press conference on Friday. “Those non-contact sports, we said that it is fine to proceed from a recommendation perspective, but we do have some guidance on how to do each of those activities safely. We’re not recommending contact sports go forward, but for non-contact sports to go forward but with some guidelines.”

Cooper stated that his staff has been working closely with the NCHSAA during the pandemic to develop a plan to safely move forward.

At the moment, the 2020-21 high school sports season is scheduled to begin on Aug. 1 with the first regular-season contests slated to start Aug. 17.

“Sports are so important to the formation of character, for fitness. I love sports. I grew up participating on sports teams all the way through high school and I know how important they can be for the education of children,” Cooper said. “This is something we want to have happen as much as we can as we approach the school year. At the same time, we have to understand the presence of COVID-19, and I don’t think that we have all of the answers to those questions yet.”

Last week, the National Federation of State High School Associations released guidance for state associations across the country to use when determining how and when to restart high school sports.

The guidelines, which the NCHSAA is not required to adhere to, identify lower risk, moderate risk, and higher risk sports, while implementing a three-phased plan to resume based on the risk.

According to Wilkes County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Anderson, county baseball and softball remains in a holding pattern with hopes of playing this summer. The schedule normally begins around the end of April and goes until the middle of June.

Tar Heel League Inc., the banner under which Wilkes County baseball and softball teams play, has cancelled both the district and state tournaments for 2020. They stated that, “we feel it is more important for the league to facilitate play for all of their participants for a full season whenever it becomes safe and feasible to play.”

American Legion announced last month the cancellation of the baseball and softball seasons as well as its state and national tournaments.

Despite the formation of an alternative league for baseball teams in Central North Carolina, Post 31 Athletic Director Kerry Nichols told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot last month that its baseball programs would not be taking part in the league.

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