Gov. Whitmer on high school sports: Watch numbers before more steps

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said health officials need to monitor COVID-19 metrics before taking additional steps to lift restrictions amid growing frustration about a halt on some winter high school sports.

Parents, coaches and players have called on the governor to allow contact high school sports, such as basketball, hockey, cheerleading and wrestling, to resume on Feb. 1, when indoor dining at restaurants relaunches. However, the ban on high school contact winter sports is scheduled to be in place through Feb. 21.

Asked about a date when the sports could resume their competitions, Whitmer cited a growing number of COVID-19 variant cases in Michigan. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said there are now 17 cases across Washtenaw and Wayne counties, and the variant is more contagious.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces, during a Jan. 8, 2021, press conference, a goal to have all school districts offer an in-person learning option by March 1, 2021.

"Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan," Whitmer said Monday. "We've got to not let our guard down. We've re-engaged restaurants to a certain extent. That will increase the amount of people who are out and about. And I think it's important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps."

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommended on Saturday that the University of Michigan pause its athletic programs because of variant cases. The university announced a two-week pause over the weekend.

But parents, coaches and players have voiced frustration in recent days about the suspension of high school contact sports as COVID-19 infection rates have eased in Michigan. Last week, the state reported 12,535 new cases, the lowest weekly total in 14 weeks.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, called on Whitmer to explain the ban on contact high school sports. He posted a map Saturday that showed Michigan was one of only three states not allowing high school basketball games.

"How can we not view this as political? What threshold of safety needs to met? What are we saying to students, families and coaches?" Vitti questioned.

On Monday, Peter Ruddell, a lawyer representing a group called Let Them Play Michigan, sent a letter to Elizabeth Hertel, the state's new director of the Department of Health and Human Services, urging her to allow all sports to begin practice and competition no later than Feb. 1.

Let Them Play Michigan is a coalition of student-athletes, parents, coaches and school administrators, according to the letter.

"There is no rational basis for prohibiting student athletes from practicing and competing, when the clear evidence in Michigan and nationwide confirms the activity is safe for student-athletes and does not cause great harm to the community," Ruddell wrote in his letter.

On Friday, Mark Uyl, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said the decision to delay winter contact sports was "disappointing to thousands of athletes who have been training with their teams over the last week and watching teams in other states around Michigan play for the last two months."

"We found out about this decision at 9:30 a.m. like everyone else, and we will address it as quickly as possible after taking the weekend to collect more information,” Uyl said Friday. "We did not anticipate this delay in winter contact practices and competition, and today’s announcement has created many new questions."