JHHS state football vs. Cody

Fall contact sports when on as planned, but health officials are raising concerns that close-contact sports this winter could be risky because COVID-19 numbers are rising and the sports would take place inside. 

Public health officials are keeping a keen eye on contact sports while they consider how to contain COVID-19 as people head indoors for the winter.

At Tuesday’s special Jackson Town Council meeting, Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said such activities are risky right now due to the level of spread.

“In this very high level of disease, we should not have close-contact sports going on at this moment,” she said. “We should look at returning to some of the orders back in the spring that limited the group size in gym classes, restaurant capacity, etc.”

When Teton County School District No. 1 students returned to the classroom Monday after the Thanksgiving break, winter sports started, including basketball and wrestling, both of which qualify as close-contact sports.

District Communications Director Charlotte Reynolds said sports programs are running in accordance with the health guidance of the Wyoming High School Activities Association.

The association said that as long as students are in the classroom at least part time, sports can go on. Were the health crisis to get bad enough that the association recommended halting sports, the district would follow that edict.

So far, the association has not recommended halting any activities, though it released updated guidelines Tuesday that included stricter mask-wearing requirements for spectators.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Pond referred to clusters of cases associated with close-contact sports, though she told the Jackson Hole Daily on Thursday that clusters hadn’t been seen in school-sanctioned sports. Cases that have arisen in school sports have been the subject of discussion at past school board meetings, with Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller referring to “evidence of transmission” during afterschool extracurricular activities.

Any changes to close-contact sports this winter would go through the school board, Reynolds said, especially if they deviated from its established Smart Start plan.

Even though many school district students participate in club sports, like hockey and skiing, the district has no say over whether those sports stop because outside organizations run them.

“The club- versus the school-sanctioned sports is also an issue in our community,” Pond said Tuesday, “and those clubs would have to make that decision.”

One example is Jackson Hole Youth Hockey, which paused practices and competitions Nov. 12 but resumed Nov. 30 with enhanced COVID-19 precautions, including: no parents in the rink during practice; locker rooms are closed; younger skaters must arrive with skates already on; one team on the ice at a time; and participants must depart the building immediately after practice and games.

Though decisions on whether to pause close-contact sports as part of the strategy to curb the spread of COVID-19 are up to individual organizations, Pond said such sports remain risky in her opinion.

Based on the experiences of professional sports leagues, which have seen cases since competition resumed, it is difficult to mitigate spread when athletes are breathing hard and expelling aerosolized droplets near each other.

Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell wrote a letter to the school district saying as much in the fall, and it appears the minds of public health officials haven’t changed since then.

“That still stands; our stance on that has not changed,” Pond said. “Our stance has always been the same, that we don’t believe during a pandemic that contact sports should be occurring.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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