Lamont cancels plan that would have allowed Connecticut high school athletes to remove masks

Joseph McRay of Newtown, left, tries to protect the ball against New Milford’s Stephen Spampinato during the first quarter at Newtown on March 15.

Joseph McRay of Newtown, left, tries to protect the ball against New Milford’s Stephen Spampinato during the first quarter at Newtown on March 15.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

High school athletes, coaches and sports officials in Connecticut will have to continue wearing masks during indoor competition as COVID cases continue to rise statewide, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday.

Initial plans called for students competing indoors during the winter season to be able to remove masks for competition if vaccinated as of Dec. 23. But due to a spike in COVID cases, those plans have been paused.

“We had said when this guidance was released that the rules would change subject to a fluid and dynamic COVID situation,” Lamont’s spokesman Max Reiss said. “And with cases surging, we want to continue to provide the most protection possible for students, staff and those involved with high school athletics.”

Connecticut’s COVID infection rate reported Wednesday was the highest for a seven day average since the state began broad testing last year. There were 3,366 new cases discovered Wednesday, resulting in a daily positivty rate of 8.93 percent. The seven-day average reached 7.78 percent.

The state’s daily positivity rate had dipped as low as 1.52 percent on Oct. 29, but has been on a steady climb since then.

Lamont has walked a delicate line between state mandates and encouraging local officials and businesses to set their own rules. But with the rise in cases, he has come under pressure from health providers to issue more orders. Just this week, for example, a Yale New Haven doctor launched a petition calling on the governor to issue a statewide mask mandate and the state’s health clinics for low-income residents called on him to spend more state money on testing.

Masks remain required in schools, no matter a students’ vaccination status. While most districts have continued despite a rise in COVID cases, Greenwich and Stamford schools announced this week they would begin the holiday break early.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which governs high school athletics, was poised as recently as Wednesday to move ahead with athletes, officials and coaches removing masks beginning Thursday. CIAC Director Glenn Lungarini told a Hearst Connecticut reporter, prior to the decision from the governor’s office, that he expected some schools would continue wearing masks no matter vaccination status once the requirement was dropped.

When asked about the timing of the announcement Lungarini said “this was a late-afternoon decision. Since March of 2020, we have adjusted when necessary and when provided new information and today is a continuation of that practice.

“As stated previously if DPH modified any of its guidance, the CIAC would change to align with those modifications,” Lungarini said. “We have come to appreciate and understand that everybody involved in making a decision around youth sports is focused on providing as many safe opportunities as possible.”

The original plan also came with a number of caveats. For instance, referees were allowed to remove masks for basketball and hockey games, but had to continue wearing them, no matter their vaccine status, for other winter sports. Also, if a vaccinated athlete came in close contact with someone who tested positive, the athlete would be required to wear a mask. All personnel at basketball and hockey arenas, officials included, will need to continue to wear masks for the foreseeable future.

Winter sports include basketball, hockey, indoor track and field, wrestling, gymnastics, boys swimming, and cheer/dance.

Wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts, cheerleaders, dancers and those track and field athletes throwing, jumping or doing lifts and stunts have been able to compete without masks since the start of the regular season. They will be permitted to continue to do so, according to Lungarini. Once they are finished, however, they are required to put their mask back on.

A letter was sent to member schools last week because “we saw an issue with athletic teams not complying with the masking requirements,” Lungarini said. “We were restating the expectation and necessity of all COVID protocols to endure the best chance in having a complete season.”

The letter indicated that if there is disregard of COVID protocols, “that the CIAC Board of Control has the authority and duty to enforce its rules and regulations and, if deemed necessary, assess penalties including but not limited to fines, probation, or prohibition (elimination from state tournament play).”

Lungarini acknowledged that there already have been postponements this session due to COVID-19. But there are no plans to pause the season.

“Postponements are always anticipated. That same concern existed in the fall particularly in the sport of football. We had very few games not completed,” Lungarini said. “Our winter sports schedule provides us more flexibility to make up and reschedule games. We are confident that while we do expect COVID to impact scheduling, we will be able to compete full seasons and hold state championships.

“The only context that pausing the season was mentioned (in Tuesday’s athletic director meeting) was if we do not adhere to the COVID protocols that we have come to know to be effective, we risk creating a situation where we may not be able to compete seasons. We do not want to have discussions about shutting down. To avoid that, we need to strictly adhere to the COVID mitigating strategies.”

Dan Haar contributed to this report.