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By Zach Cavanagh

High school and youth sports finally have a pathway to a return to play, as the California Department of Public Health delivered long-awaited and delayed state guidance on sports on Monday, Dec. 14.

The guidance is tied to the state’s four-tiered, color-coded coronavirus monitoring system, with sports assigned to the different colored risk tiers based on indoor or outdoor venues and low, moderate or high contact within those sports.

The guidelines also mark Jan. 25 as the earliest start date for competition, provided that the county or region is no longer under the state’s regional stay-at-home order. Orange County and Southern California are currently under a stay-at-home order through Dec. 27, and if that order is extended, it could continue at least through Jan. 17.

The CDPH will reevaluate the situation and the Jan. 25 start date on Jan. 4. The CIF-Southern Section is slated to update its fall sports championship plans on Jan. 19.

High school sports are spread throughout the four tiers, which may come as good news for those teams in the purple “widespread” and red “substantial” risk levels, but not great news for those teams in the orange “moderate” and yellow “minimal” risk tiers.

In the purple tier, outdoor low-contact sports such as cross country, golf, swimming, tennis and track and field are able to return. Orange County has been back in the purple tier since the state pulled an “emergency brake” on the monitoring system on Nov. 16. Cross country is the only fall sport in this group, which makes it the only sport potentially able to start on Jan. 25.

In non-school outdoor sports, the purple tier includes archery, badminton, biking, bocce, cornhole, dance (no contact), disc golf, individual skating, lawn bowling, martial arts (no contact), yoga, pickleball singles, one-person rowing, running, shuffleboard, skeet shooting, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and hiking.

In the red tier, outdoor moderate-contact sports such as baseball, cheerleading, girls lacrosse and softball can return to competition. Orange County was in the red tier for 10 weeks from Sept. 8 until Nov. 16.

In non-school outdoor sports, the red tier includes dodgeball, field hockey, kickball, gymnastics and pickleball doubles.

In the orange tier, outdoor high-contact sports such as football, boys lacrosse, soccer and water polo will be able to return, as well as indoor low-contact sports such as volleyball. Orange County has not entered the orange tier since the tier system was introduced on Aug. 28. The county seemed ready to move to the orange tier at the end of September before a slight uptick held the metrics at the red level.

In non-school sports, the orange tier includes outdoor versions of ice hockey, rugby, two-person or more rowing, volleyball and water polo all and indoor versions of badminton, curling, dance (no contact), gymnastics, individual skating, pickleball singles, swimming, tennis and track and field.

In the yellow tier, indoor moderate- and high-contact sports such as basketball, cheerleading and wrestling will be able to return.

In non-school indoor sports, the yellow tier includes dance, dodgeball, kickball, pickleball doubles, racquetball, squash, boxing, ice hockey, pairs skating, martial arts, roller derby, soccer and water polo.

The CIF State office and the 10 CIF sections had first sent a plan to the CDPH for review in October. That plan also was linked to the state’s tier system, but the plan called for sports to be allowed in the top two tiers.

“It is important to note that what was recommended by our CIF Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is not what we see here,” CIF-SS Commissioner Rob Wigod said. “We requested that all sports be conducted in the Red Tier and were hopeful that we would be allowed to proceed accordingly. While that is not the case today, I want to assure you that the dialogue will continue between the CIF and the California Department of Public Health to try and advocate for the return of education-based athletics as soon as that can happen in a healthy and safe way.”

Unless the guidelines are adapted or the coronavirus tracking metrics take a dramatic turn for the better in the new year, CIF-SS competition in high-profile sports such as football and basketball could be far away. All of Southern California is currently in the purple tier, and almost all of the CIF-SS counties have been in red or purple since the system was introduced.

Monday’s guidance was the first state guidance on sports since Aug. 3. After the shutdown in mid-March, Orange County allowed youth practices on June 15, but the state counteracted that with guidance on July 8. Capistrano Unified School District programs have been running conditioning workouts since Aug. 18, and the CIF-SS originally planned to return to play with a starting date of Dec. 12.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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