HAVERHILL — After placing a temporary ban on youth sports to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Haverhill, the city's Health Board has reopened the door to those activities.
The board two weeks ago approved a temporary ban on all youth sports — including Haverhill High teams, sports at other schools, and programs involving private organizations and the Haverhill Recreation Department. The ban was to last three weeks, to the end of this week, and then by reviewed by the Health Board.
But two moves made by the board last week have made it possible for all youth sports in the city to resume.
The board said Haverhill High sports can restart because their programs meet a variety of coronavirus-related standards set by the state. The standards include that training facilities used by Hillie teams are kept properly disinfected against the virus, and that the facilities are large enough to allow players to use social distancing while training. The state standards embraced by Hillie teams that allow their sports to resume also include players wearing masks during games, limiting physical contact with opponents, and even reducing the number of players on the field during games to a number that is lower than normal.
The Health Board ruled that because Haverhill High teams follow those and other standards set by the state, they can start practicing again. The school's athletic department said it will consider resuming games later this week, after officials from Haverhill and other communities discuss the matter.
Haverhill High's only exceptions to the Health Board ban ordered two weeks ago were golf and cross country running, both of which are considered at low risk of spreading the virus, but even those sports were modified to ensure compliance with state health and safety regulations.
The ban halted Haverhill High's other fall sports — girls volleyball, field hockey, and boys and girls soccer — which were underway and can now resume. Football had previously been moved to a season which begins in February.
Last week's ruling by the Health Board said youth sports at other Haverhill schools and programs run the city's Recreation Department and private groups can also resume, as long as they too meet the state standards of properly disinfected training and playing facilities, players wearing masks when required, and proper social distancing during practices and games.
All of this is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among youth sports players so that they don't get the virus and spread it among their teammates, players on other teams and classmates at school, health officials said.
Health officials said the majority of youth sports activities in the city appear to be in compliance with the new Health Board order.
Haverhill High School is scheduled to resume fall sports on Tuesday. Monday is Columbus Day and Haverhill schools are closed.
Haverhill High Athletic Director Tom O'Brien said the facilities used by the school's teams — Haverhill stadium, the Haverhill High athletic field and the high school gym — meet the state standards, including enough room for safe social distancing during practices and a properly disinfected environment.
He said fall sports practices will begin on Tuesday and that it was a school district decision to not hold games at this time, with the exception of cross country and golf because they are considered low risk.
"It (the decision of when to resume games) is being handled by the Merrimack Valley Conference where 11 superintendents meet and decide week-to-week," O'Brien said. "We will reassess the situation Thursday when the MV Conference superintendents meet again. The soonest we can resume games is Oct. 17, but even that is doubtful at this time."
O'Brien said examples of how sports have been modified to reduce physical contact include soccer players being required to wear masks and not allowing them to form "walls" — a strategy in games where players on one team gather closely together to block shots by the other team. Field hockey players must wear masks and instead of teams each having 11 players on the field during games, the numbers were reduced to 7 on 7. For volleyball, new rules include no blocking at the net to keep players apart.
Last week, the Health Board also ruled the youth sports ban does not affect swimming, karate studios or hockey programs not run by the city's School Department or Recreation Department.
A critical rule within the order allows youth sports activities to resume as long as they take place in facilities that are compliant with state health and safety rules or the youth sports activities are considered "lower risk." State regulations also call for changes in game rules to ensure minimal physical contact among players.
"If people comply with this section of the order, I have not choice but to allow them to continue," said city Health Director Richard MacDonald. "The new regulations were created to ensure precautions are being taken."
He said karate studios aren't impacted by the ban because they typically do not host team activities. They still must be in compliance with state health and safety regulations, he said.
The Health Board is expected to review the city's youth sports rules on or before Oct. 28, at that time considering whether Haverhill is still in the state's red, high-risk zone for COVID-19.