CEDARVILLE — As major athletic conferences have chosen to postpone their fall seasons, Gov. Mike DeWine told reporters his decision to keep high school sports on-track was a "close call" to make.
The governor during a Tuesday briefing on the state's coronavirus response, announced contact and non-contact sports at all levels may continue for the fall and spring seasons, under new state guidelines expected to be issued soon.
Those guidelines, which take effect Friday, hold "no big surprises," the governor said. But the success of the incoming sports seasons will hinge on local communities' ability to contain the spread of coronavirus by sticking to health guidelines.
The governor said his administration took a "holistic" look at students' well-being — athletic competition instills discipline and offers incentive to keep their grades up, he said. But just like returning to classrooms, sports participation also presents a risk, he said.
"We're going to have to see how this goes. If it doesn't work, schools are going to know that pretty quick," DeWine said. "We would just ask them to work with their local health department very closely and to make the right decision. We obviously will be looking at this and we'll see how this works. And we hope it works."
The governor also pointed to the statewide virus-testing positivity rate of 4.5 percent, which is down two points from where it was two months ago. However, while urban counties are also seeing decreased test positivity rates, rural counties are seeing a positivity spike.
He later added, "We stand ready, if the virus goes another way, to shut it all down. But I looked at this as a very close call and I listened to what many parents have told me about the problems connected with their child being out of school. ... It's a bigger picture and, frankly, we're allowing parents to make that decision.
"If it goes off the rails, don't doubt that we'll step in."
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said site inspectors would be on-hand at contests to ensure rules are being followed — "everyone involved must be accountable." Health violations could result in forfeits or team disqualification, he said.
The guidelines — which be issued as a state health department order, likely on "a subsequent day," a spokesperson said — are expected to limit sporting event spectators to family and close relations of the athletes, band members, drill teams or other participants, he said.
The guidelines also allow schools to delay their fall sports seasons until the spring. Some Ohio school districts have already chosen to delay; others are undecided, DeWine said.
School districts may also decide whether to mandate masks for athletes, DeWine said. It's also up to school districts that are only educating remotely to decide whether they join the upcoming sports seasons, he said.
"Success in sports is going to be measured by wins and losses and all the other things we measure sports by," the governor said, but also "how well we can keep the COVID away from the teams and from the athletes.
"We're empowering our young people, we're empowering our parents, we're empowering the schools to take all the evidence, all the information, and make the best judgment call."
Dr. Jim Borchers of Ohio State University said Tuesday parents and athletics officials should be thinking about the cardiac health risks for competing athletes who have tested positive for COVID-19 and may have developed inflammation of the heart muscle that was caused by the infection — an uncommon condition called myocarditis, which is a risk factor for sudden cardiac arrest.
"One of the things they continue to study and look at with COVID-19 is its predilection for potentially infecting the heart with an infection," he said. "It's one of the issues we're learning quite a bit about and certainly one of the things we want to remain vigilant for."
Though Borchers stressed parents shouldn't be "overly scared" by the heart complication, he stressed the importance of health screenings for athletes.
Borchers said the parents of each athlete have to decide for themselves whether to let their athletes participate this year, based on how their community has responded to the pandemic.
"When the community does not have a healthy environment, when we see a large infectivity rate, we find it's more difficult and we struggle sometimes to have athletics and organized sport," he said.
"I think that every individual needs to look at what's going on in their environment and what their community looks like," Borchers said. "If the infectivity of this virus is extremely high and we don't have the ability to test, I'd be concerned about letting my [athlete] participate."
The opposite is also true, he said.
VALLEY COACHES GET IN THE HUDDLE
Former Vindicator sports editor Rob Todor, now sports editor for the Alliance Review and Kent Record-Courier, said DeWine's Tuesday announcement left many questions unanswered. He said he's unsure how one would determine which spectators are family members or close friends.
Austintown Fitch High School athletic director Jim Penk joined other school administrators and coaches to learn more on a Tuesday evening conference call with the governor's office.
He said one drawback to the state's plan is only school athletes and members of the marching band or cheerleading squad would get tickets to distribute to friends and family. Anyone outside those circles "pretty much are not invited," he said.
Penk said Fitch only will sell tickets in a presale. For home games, the opponent will do the same thing.
"When you come here on Friday night, you're going to have to [already] have a ticket," Penk said.
Penk said team rosters will be limited to 60. For many schools, that's not an issue. But for Fitch, the largest school in Mahoning Valley, it presents an added challenge because Fitch has 118 players including freshmen.
Penk said he's estimating he will have 300 tickets for visiting teams to sell.
Penk said soccer and football teams are permitted to scrimmage beginning Friday. He said Fitch has a football scrimmage lined up but admitted there is back-and-forth going on right now as to whether it's worth the risk of someone getting sick in a scrimmage a week before the Falcons' opener against archrival Boardman.
Penk added that most visiting teams' marching bands will not be performing at road games.
Brian Clark, Sebring High School athletic director, said, "The best victory came today when DeWine said we could play."
Sebring is one of the smallest schools in the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference. Clark said echoed that athletic directors want to hear what the capacity will be for football games. Sebring's stadium has 1,600 seats.
The MVAC athletic directors are planning to meet on Wednesday to determine how many tickets visiting teams will receive, Clark said. As for league championships and year-end honors, Clark said the MVAC needs to finalize the league plan.
Should an athlete test positive, Clark said the local health department will determine what comes next. It's possible that should a volleyball player test positive, the football team might not be put in quarantine.
Though DeWine and Husted on Tuesday expressed hope that athletes will stay disciplined on wearing masks and social distancing, Todor said he's more concerned about non-athlete students.
"I'm afraid that the students who aren't involved with extracurriculars are going to screw this up. They have no incentive," he said.
Unlike the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has either postponed or canceled fall seasons, high schools likely won't be mandating testing 72 hours before games, Todor said.
Ohio's new order does not call for a testing mandate, and DeWine said Tuesday many Ohio schools wouldn't be able to meet such a mandate.
The order also affects the Youngstown Phantoms, the Tier 1 junior hockey team that plays home games at the Covelli Centre.
Tuesday afternoon, the United States Hockey League announced it's delaying the start of its season until at least Nov. 6 and hoping to play a 54-game season.
In recent seasons, the Phantoms played 60 to 62 games beginning in late September.
The Phantoms are made up of players ages 16 to 20 and do not fall under the umbrella of the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Reporter Tom Williams contributed to this report.
Here are other coronavirus-related developments around the state and region:
• According to the latest figures Tuesday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 104,105 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. There have been 2,702 confirmed or suspected cases in Mahoning County; 1,642 in Trumbull County; and 1,733 in Columbiana County.
• Statewide, there have been 3,592 confirmed deaths, including 261 in Mahoning County; 113 in Trumbull; and 62 in Columbiana. Mahoning County's 261 reported COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday was fifth among Ohio's 88 counties; Franklin County had the most with 542.
• In nearby counties: Stark, 2,046 cases and 145 deaths; Portage, 793 cases and 65 deaths; and Ashtabula, 588 cases and 46 deaths.
• The Youngstown City Health District will host a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Metro Assembly of God on South Avenue. Anyone can get a test at no cost, and preregistration is not required.
• The American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Mahoning County's annual event, set for Saturday (Aug. 22) from 1 to 10 p.m., will look different this year. Most of it is set to take place virtually on the Mahoning County Relay for Life's Facebook Page and YouTube channel.
• Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose on Tuesday announced Ohioans would be required to wear face coverings when voting in-person during the Nov. 3 general election. This reverses a previous ruling in which LaRose ruled unmasked voters would not be turned away. Polling precincts will offer masks to voters who do not have their own.
• U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in a statement Tuesday announced the U.S. Postal Service would suspend efforts to increase the service's efficiency — such as removal of mailboxes and mail-processing equipment and closures of processing facilities — until after the Nov. 3 general election, "to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail." Ohio congressional Democrats — and one state Republican — on Monday pushed back against efforts they said would undermine the Postal Service and hinder mail-in voting.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Tuesday, there are 125,579 COVID-19 cases in the state and 7,499 deaths. The state said the recovery rate is 79 percent. There have been 504 confirmed or suspected cases in Mercer County and 12 deaths; 429 cases in Lawrence County and 16 deaths.