Governor Signs off on Start Date for High School Sports

By Brian Carlton

October 31, 2020

All sports can start back up with practice in December and then games near the end of the month.

RICHMOND-It’s official. Virginia high school students can start playing sports again during their winter break. Gov. Ralph Northam amended his Executive Order 67 on Thursday, lifting some restrictions for recreational sports. 

The major change involves a social distancing rule. Northam’s original order called for people to remain 10 feet apart during recreational activities. It’s hard to do that and play basketball, baseball or any contact sport. The amended version signed Thursday removes that rule, allowing sports to restart. It’s unclear why Northam chose now to lift restrictions, days after Ballad Health reported problems containing COVID-19 in Southwest Virginia. 

The governor didn’t give any explanation in a statement provided to media, nor did his office respond to questions from Dogwood about the issue. Instead, the statement simply said he felt confident that the guidelines designed by the Virginia High School League would keep players safe. 

“Keeping our student athletes safe is critical during this pandemic,” Northam said in the statement. “I know I join many parents in looking forward to the safe return of school sports. VHSL has been a tremendous partner throughout the COVID crisis, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and diligence they have put in development of these guidelines for returning to play.”

The Virginia Department of Health signed off on VHSL’s guidelines shortly before Northam signed the amendment. 

Rules and requirements change

Now that doesn’t mean capacity crowds can come watch students play. Northam’s amended order limits the number of people allowed at any sporting event. There can be no more than either 50% of the venue’s capacity or 250 people, whichever is smaller. If a venue seats 300, for example, that means only 150 people can observe the game, including coaches, training staff and fans. Outdoor events meanwhile have a 250-person limit. 

Fans, event staff and even coaches have to wear masks at all times. That part is non-negotiable. If you want to watch the game, you have to wear a mask. Athletes meanwhile will have to wear a mask when they’re on the sideline or on the bus, traveling to and from games. Players will also have to change the way they celebrate. The rules make it clear there “should be no hugging, high fives, handshakes or fist bumps.” 

Even the rules for most of the sports will change. That means:

  • No jump balls in basketball. Instead, there’s a twist on the typical home field advantage. The visiting team, boys and girls, will get the first possession. A coin toss decides the first possession in overtime. 
  • Cheerleaders will have to stay six feet away from each other during routines. 
  • No more drop ball restart in soccer. Instead, the referee will give an indirect free kick to whichever team has possession of the ball. 
  • Soccer players also can’t fight for position in front of the goalkeeper. They must stay at least an arm’s length from each other. 
  • A baseball & softball tradition goes away, as no one can chew gum or seeds. 
  • Also in baseball & softball, lineup cards will be shared through a photo or text message on the coach’s phone. 

When can they start?  

Boys and girls basketball teams can start practicing Dec. 7. The other winter sports, including diving, gymnastics, indoor track, swimming and wrestling, all start back on Dec. 14. Under the new schedule, the first game for any high school sport can take place Dec. 21. Their seasons will run through Feb. 20. 

As for fall sports, teams can start practicing Feb. 4, with first games scheduled for March 1. This includes all football teams, golf, volleyball, field hockey, cross country and cheerleading squads. 

Spring sports, meanwhile, get a delayed start as a result. They begin practice April 12, with first games set for April 26. This includes all high school baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis and track and field teams.

In a statement sent out to media Friday, VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun said he appreciated the work that went into creating the new guidelines. 

“This amendment by the Governor clears the way for all of our sports to play,” Haun said. “We appreciate the time, effort, and input staff received while preparing this document. Adherence to these guidelines will offer a safe reopening for our students, coaches, staff, officials, and communities once we start playing in December.”

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