The California Department of Public Health announced Friday that outdoor high-contact sports can be played in areas that are in the purple and red tiers under certain conditions.

The announcement makes it easier for high school football and other contact sports to return to the area, though testing of student-athletes is a requirement for areas with a higher case rate. Football practice could begin as soon as Feb. 26 in areas that can adhere to the new guidance.

Previously, areas had to be in the orange tier to play football and other high-contact sports.

In the guidance released Friday, the CDPH said outdoor high-contact sports that are in the orange tier, such as football, soccer, rugby and water polo, can be played in areas with an adjusted case rate between 7 and 14 per 100,000, under certain conditions. Either antigen or PCR testing is required for athletes and coaches.

The current adjusted case rate in Santa Barbara County was 27 Thursday. In San Luis Obispo County, it was 15.6. The case rate is typically updated every two weeks and the new numbers should be released by the counties early next week. San Luis Obispo County's adjusted case rate could be under 14 by next week. 

The adjusted case rate in Santa Barbara County has been quickly falling, though it's unclear if it will be at or below 14 by next week.

With the state opening up a path to football and other contact sports Friday, a lot of the final decisions now fall at the feet of county health departments and local school districts.

The state said it will be working with school districts to do testing. The guidance is for participants 13 years of age and above.

"I think the state did the right thing for these kids," Santa Ynez football coach Josh McClurg said Friday. "There are millions of kids playing high school football and other sports across the state." 

Lompoc football coach Andrew Jones added, "I've been waiting for this day forever. I don't care if it's right in the middle of snowboarding or golf season, if we have the chance to play football, let's do it." 

After an 18-month layoff possibly ending shortly, St. Joseph football coach Pepe Villasenor said Friday, "I want to commend our families, players and coaches for being patient, first and foremost. They've worked hard and now, god willing, it's coming to fruition."

Villasenor said, "If we have to play at Robin Ventura Park, we'll do it."

Jones said his school has a five-game schedule in place that could start March 19. Teams will need 14 padded practices before the season starts and the Braves' schedule will mirror last year's Channel League schedule, with the six 2019 Channel League teams playing each other.

The testing requirement only applies in the following situations: For football, rugby and water polo as these are high contact sports that are likely to be played unmasked, with close, face-to-face contact exceeding 15 minutes, the CDPH guidance said.

The state health department said "evidence shows that younger children do not seem to be major sources of transmission—either to each other or to adults."

If more than 50% of a team's participants are less than the age of 13 (and are not required to test per the above), then the entire team is exempted from the testing requirement. Coaches, however, will still be required to meet the testing requirement, the guidance said.

McClurg said even if his program has to help fund testing, his school will get it done.

"I know with my football boosters club and parents, that won't be an issue," McClurg said.

The CDPH said additional guidance that should be implemented to the greatest extent possible, including face coverings during play, physical distancing during play, testing (antigen or PCR), hygiene and sanitation, limitations on mixing by participants and travel considerations.

The guidance also said that observers should be limited to immediate household members, and for the strict purpose of age appropriate supervision.  This includes observation of practice and competition. 

"Limit number of observers to ensure physical distance can be maintained, reduce potential crowding, and maintain indoor and outdoor capacity limits," the CDPH guidance said.

The high school football season has been twice delayed this school year. Most area teams have been preparing for a season by holding conditioning sessions on campus.

The high school sports world came to a screeching halt in March of 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The high school football season, which was slated to be played last fall, has been in a holding pattern. It was pushed back to December last year and delayed again to January. Now teams could start practicing in a week.

"I'm cautiously excited," McClurg added. "I don't want to jump the gun yet, we need county approval, district approval, but I know our superintendent Scott Cory wants these sports to be played."

Transportation could be an issue as schools are not transporting students to competitions currently. 

Jones said keeping his players on the team has been a struggle. He had about 60 players early in the school year but his numbers have dropped to around 30 as uncertainty that a season would happen grew.

"We've been at this since September, we just want to play," he said. "We started with 60 something kids, we're down to 30. As long long as we've got 11, we can play."

At St. Joseph, Villasenor said his school is still building a tentative schedule. 

"From what I've heard, it will be five or six games and the athletic directors within the area will be meeting after the CIF commissioners meet and we'll have a better idea at that point."

Jones added, "It's a huge step in the right direction, but I know some of us are like 'We'll believe it when we see it. "We are excited, but we just got to figure out some of these logistical things as far as testing and handing out gear. Our school district will do whatever it takes to get athletes back on the field, all student-athletes.

"I know CIF has been taking a lot of bullets in this thing and it has nothing to do with them. They've had to follow the state recommendations and now there's some real hope."


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