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New York allows high school and youth sports if locals agree

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration will allow basketball, football and other higher-risk sports competitions to proceed beginning Feb. 1 so long as county health departments sign off on it.

The state issued updated COVID-reopening guidelines Friday for sports and recreational activities, clearing the way for all high school and recreational sports leagues to begin as soon as next month.

But the new rules come with a significant caveat: The local health department will first have to approve competitive play within its jurisdiction for sports deemed higher risk by the state, including basketball, football, competitive cheer, ice hockey and men's lacrosse.

The state will require county health departments to consider three things when making a determination: The local COVID-19 rates, the local ability to monitor compliance with rules and whether the U.K. strain of the coronavirus is present within the area.

"Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher risk sports and recreation activities may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training and, further, may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities (i.e., county health departments)," according to the new state rules.

Previously, the state Department of Health had only allowed low- and moderate-risk amateur sports to proceed with competitive play, including bowling, soccer, cross country and golf.

Sports the state considered high-risk — football, basketball, hockey and competitive cheer, among them — were only allowed to have non-contact drills and other distanced training activities.

That led to the postponement of the 2020 high-school football season, which now could be cleared to begin in what is traditionally the spring sports season. Meanwhile, neighboring states had allowed youth sports to resume.

Duane Weimer, athletic director at Victor High School in Ontario County, said news of the state's decision made him emotional.

"I could literally cry," Weimer said as he loaded his car to head to nearby Hunt Hollow Ski Club for his alpine team's Senior Night. 

Weimer said he got a call around 3 p.m. from his boys basketball coach, asking if the rumors were true. Weimer had not yet heard, so he went to the state website and read the news. He said it's the first time the guidelines had been updated since August of 2020.

Riley Chevrier, girls basketball coach at Tappan Zee High School in Rockland County, said her phone was blowing up within 20 minutes of the news breaking on social media.

“I’m hearing from the girls, from my coaches, from other coaches," she said. "First and foremost, everyone is grateful for an answer and we’re thrilled to have an opportunity to have some semblance of a season. It’s a step in the right direction."

Professional and college-level sports operated under a different set of rules in New York, which allowed the Buffalo Bills and Syracuse University football teams to play games in the fall, albeit largely without fans.

News of the state's latest guidance came as something of a surprise.

Just two weeks ago, the state Department of Health pointed to state contact-tracing data that the agency claimed showed "clear evidence" of coronavirus spread through sports. 

In recent weeks, parents and families of student-athletes had been increasingly vocal about their desire to resume play, with some local and state lawmakers and officials joining the call.

Under the state's new rules, high school and youth sporting events will still have to adhere to strict guidelines, which includes a limit of no more than two spectators per player.

On Friday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza issued a joint statement praising the decision and making clear they intend to allow high school and youth sports to resume.

"We know how hard the last 10 months have been for our community, particularly our students and high school student-athletes," they said in the statement. "The return of high school sports will give them a sense of normalcy, and an opportunity to compete with their friends and classmates."

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.