Winter sports coaches and athletes learned Monday that games, matches and meets can resume Jan. 14, and masks will be required during most competitions.
On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health released updated guidelines for mitigating the spread of the coronavirus in winter sports from the youth to the high school level. Basketball and hockey players must compete while wearing face coverings. Participants in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and diving and wrestling will be allowed to temporarily remove their masks while performing certain tasks.
Practice pods are capped at 25 athletes. Spectators are not allowed at practice unless a child's age, disability or medical condition requires parental support. It is unclear whether spectators will be permitted to attend games. Concessions are not allowed to be sold at games at this time. Additional guidance pertaining to any changes to game play is expected.
Face coverings must be worn when practices begin Jan. 4. Minnesota State High School League officials had hinted that the need for full-time face coverings could become a reality. Still, the final decision drew concerns from basketball and hockey coaches.
"Masks are safer, but they are going to create their own innate problems, unfortunately," said Willie Braziel, Columbia Heights boys' basketball coach. "It's going to be tougher to breathe. And it's going to be an adjustment for players who have asthma."
According to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "any cloth face covering that becomes saturated with sweat should be changed immediately." Hill-Murray girls' hockey coach Caesare Engstrom said she ran youth practices and found "just talking for 10 minutes saturated the mask. For players, this is going to be quite interesting to overcome."
Other players have adapted. The Concordia Academy volleyball team, a top-five Class 2A program, took the rare step of wearing masks during practices and most matches during the recently completed volleyball season.
Senior outside hitter Kira Fallert said that playing while wearing a mask "took a lot of getting used to" but she and her teammates adjusted quickly.
"Once we had done it for a while, it's really not that bad," Fallert recalled, adding that, eventually, "it felt kind of weird when I wasn't wearing one."
She said the biggest challenges were catching her breath after long, drawn-out rallies and making sure the masks stay in place during play. "It falls down a lot."
Winter sports were first delayed to later in November and beyond by the MSHSL to avoid potential overlap in facilities usage and athletes playing multiple sports. Then Gov. Tim Walz put youth sports on a four-week pause through Dec. 18. And then Walz extended the executive order through Jan. 4.
"There have definitely been a lot of ups and downs," Engstrom said. "It's been tough to keep the morale of the players up. So with these dates out there, everyone is excited. Hopefully they stick and we can go forward."
The MSHSL previously mapped out winter season scenarios to ensure a solid number of regular season games as well as a postseason that could include state tournaments.
"Implementing these safety protocols," league executive director Erich Martens said in a news release, offers "the best chance to provide safe seasons with reduced interruptions and also plan for full postseason experiences."
Staff writer Jim Paulsen contributed to this report.