SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that he stands behind his decision to prohibit high school football for the fall season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, even as professional and many college leagues have decided to resume play.
“Over the summer, we saw outbreaks across Illinois and the world tied to a variety of youth sports leagues. Those continue today, even among the lowest risk youth sports,” Pritzker said during a COVID-19 news conference in Chicago. “We have watched professional sports and even some college teams play seemingly without many problems. But remember that these programs are operating with daily testing or in a league-created bubble, or with facilities that allow for outsized social distancing and are sanitized every day. And, in some cases, all of those precautions have been taken.”
Pritzker’s comments came one day after the Big 10 conference, which includes the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, reversed its earlier decision and announced that it will allow the 2020 football season to go forward starting Oct. 23-24 under enhanced health and safety protocols.
The NFL also has allowed its season to go forward under safety protocols that include limited seating in the stadiums.
The Illinois Department of Public Health released its sports safety guidelines in July. Those guidelines divide various sports into three risk categories, depending on the level of physical contact involved, among other factors.
Football and hockey are in the highest risk category, meaning those teams are restricted to non-contact training. Basketball and soccer are considered medium risk, meaning they can have intra-team scrimmages but no competitive play. Baseball, golf and softball are considered low risk so they are allowed to engage in competitive games.
Football has been pushed back to the spring, along with boys soccer and girls volleyball. The only high school sports currently ongoing are cross country, golf, girls tennis and girls swimming and diving.
“The science is the same for sports as it is for restaurants, meetings, nursing homes, you name the situation,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “The more people you are around, the closer you are to them, and the longer you are around them, the greater the risk of transmitting COVID-19, and this includes colleges and universities.”
Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said that regardless of the level of contact involved in any particular sport, all contact sports present some level of risk.
“While a contact sport itself provides an easy way on the field for the virus to spread, it is also incredibly important to remember that there are many off-the-field activities that are associated with contact sports, such as athletes using locker rooms, working out in gyms, and traveling together that provide a perfect storm of conditions.”
Declining infection rates
The debate over the resumption of high school sports came as infection rates appeared to be declining in most parts of Illinois, including two regions that are currently under enhanced mitigation measures such as the closing of bars and restaurants to indoor service.
In Region 7, which includes Will and Kankakee counties, the rolling average test positivity rate fell to 6.4 percent, according to the latest data. That’s a tenth of a point below the 6.5-percent benchmark that would allow for the lifting of those restrictions.
“IDPH will continue to watch that positivity over the next few days, and if that trend holds for three days, we will remove the resurgence mitigations and return the entire region to Phase Four of the Restore Illinois plan,” Pritzker said.
In Region 4, which includes the Metro East area across the river from St. Louis, the rolling average test positivity rate stood at 8.9 percent. That’s still above the 8-percent threshold that triggers the enhanced mitigation efforts, but well below the 9.6-percent rate the area recorded just three days earlier.
Pritzker noted that the positivity rate has held steady or declined in all but two regions of Illinois over the past two weeks. The statewide positivity rate stood at 3.7 percent as of Wednesday, an increase of one-tenth of a percent from the day prior.
On Wednesday, IDPH reported 1,941 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to 266,151. The department also reported an additional 35 virus-related fatalities, bringing the statewide death toll to 8,367.
As of Tuesday night, 1,565 people in Illinois were being hospitalized for COVID-19. That included 345 patients in intensive care units, of whom 143 were on ventilators.