Winter sports for high school and youth teams can hold practice on Jan. 4 with the hope, but no assurance yet, of playing games again by the middle of January.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that the state is extending the four-week pause on youth and adult sports, set to expire Friday night, for two more weeks. The pause had been enacted to help slow fast-moving community spread of the COVID-19 virus.
"We need to get kids playing again, we know that,'' Walz said in a video presentation to the state. "We know that the numbers show that kids aren't as susceptible.''
The new order spells out allowances for restricted individual practice or workouts to begin as soon as Saturday. Fitness studios and gyms will be able to reopen at a quarter of their capacity, with a 100-person limit. People must wear masks and maintain 12 feet of social distancing.
In the order, Walz said organized sports "are riskier than individual exercise, as they typically occur in groups.''
"We can limit risk for participants, coaches, and families by first returning to practices in smaller groups with heightened precautions,'' he said in the order. "By starting small and keeping transmission low now, we can begin to consider returning to games and competitions that require interactions between different teams and the presence of spectators.''
The Jan. 4 start date was among options that the Minnesota State High School League anticipated for restarting winter sports when its board met earlier this month. Sports set to resume practice include boys' and girls' basketball, hockey, Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing, as well as gymnastics, wrestling, boys' swimming, dance team and adapted floor hockey.
The league's plan anticipated up to 10 days of practice before games would be begin. However, the league noted that "the first date of competition under the new directive has not yet been determined.''
Minnehaha Academy boys' basketball coach Lance Johnson called the two-week extension "a no-brainer.'' Johnson has a daughter employed in the health care industry who has been keeping him informed on the path of the pandemic.
"As long as we can get a season, I'm all for delaying it," he said.
Melissa Volk, coach of defending Class 2A girls' hockey champion Andover, said, ''Our youth have been hit the hardest. It's nice that sports is coming back. The next thing is to get them back in school."
Farmington girls' basketball coach Liz Carpentier said she's hopeful a Jan. 4 start date will provide time for an 18-game season and postseason play including a state tournament. Her team was set to play in the Class 4A championship game last March when the pandemic shut down the tournament.
"The biggest thing to know is that we get back on the court on Jan. 4," said Carpentier, past president of the Minnesota Girls' Basketball Coaches Association.
For youth sports played outside of high school, games and tournaments are unlikely to be allowed until a later date to be determined.
When Walz announced the four-week pause effective Nov. 21, it cut short the football and volleyball seasons. By that time some school districts had already postponed winter sports until after Jan. 1 because of high case levels affecting staffing and attendance.
Restarting sports on Jan. 4 aligns with many schools returning from extended holiday breaks. Schools have the option of restarting sports later depending on their COVID situations.
At Hopkins, new girls' basketball coach Tara Starks called the delay "pretty stressful. Our kids are used to being in the gym, working on their games and being with each other."
In place of practice, the Royals have been building through screentime, bonding and talking college basketball via Google Meets.
"I want to get back in the gym and get shots up and start working some skill development," Starks said.
Warroad girls' hockey coach Dave Marvin said, "It's been tough to see our players do everything you ask and still have to go through this. This has been tough on a lot of kids. They just want to play."
High school sports editor Paul Klauda contributed to this report.