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Sonoma County order won’t end high school sports; spectators likely to be limited

A new Sonoma County mandate that limits gatherings to curb the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 omicron variant doesn’t spell the end for indoor high school sports this year, an official said Monday.

Basketball games and wrestling matches will still take place, even though the county has capped the number of people present at 50, North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing said.

Average basketball games are comprised of two teams of at least 10 players. Combined with two coaches and referees, there’s still room in gymnasiums for spectators.

“I think it’s perfectly practical to do 50 or less,” Smith Billing said, adding that “the number of spectators for each player would be limited to parents or guardians.”

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, on Monday, issued an order limiting indoor gatherings to a maximum of 50 people. Outdoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of 100 people if social distancing isn’t possible.

She also urged county residents to stay at home as much as possible over the next 30 days, and suggested they also reduce their interactions with those outside of their households.

“Our case rates are at their highest level since the pandemic began and our hospitalizations are climbing at an alarming rate as well,” Mase said in a recorded message issued Monday to Sonoma County residents. “We are seeing widespread transmission occurring within unvaccinated groups, as well as some transmission among vaccinated individuals.”

Smith Billing said the county’s decision to limit gatherings wasn’t unexpected. She added that it “makes total sense.”

Cancellations and postponements had been prevalent among North Bay high school basketball games this month due to surges in COVID-19 cases.

Last week, upwards of 30 high school basketball games did not take place in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties due to the pandemic.

Due largely to the omicron variant, during the past two weeks, Sonoma County’s case rate has increased from 24.4 per 100,000 to more than 121 new cases per 100,000 per day and is predicted to continue rising during January.

Meanwhile, the county’s testing positivity rate reached an all-time high of 16.5% this week as compared to the previous high of 9.7% during this pandemic.

The ongoing surge was expected to be discussed during a meeting with high school athletic directors on Wednesday.

Maria Carrillo High School wrestling coach Tim Bruce said the county order will have a negative impact on his sport since competitions can involve varsity, junior varsity and girl wrestlers from two schools.

There are about 14 wrestling teams in Sonoma County and the limitation will force school officials to reorganize schedules in order for everyone to have their matches.

That includes this Wednesday’s dual meet between Maria Carrillo and Ukiah High School.

“There’s enough time. I can shuffle. I can make it work. But the competitive equity in the sport is now going out the window. You’re just handcuffing teams,” Bruce said, adding an upcoming tournament on Jan. 22 involves multiple teams from across the state.

Monday’s health order goes into effect Wednesday morning and will remain in place through Feb. 11.

The limit on gatherings particularly impacts high school athletic competitions, music and theater performances, dances, fundraising events and in-person assemblies, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education.

It doesn’t not apply to normal classroom or recess activities.

Officials stress that the 50-person cap applies to the total number of people under one roof and not just spectators.

“That’s a total number of 50 people in the room entirely,” said Eric Wittmershaus, county Office of Education director of communications.

Spectators will need to be masked and assigned seating based on current pandemic social distancing guidelines, according to the county.

Smith Billing recalled similar precautions had been put in place previously. Spectators, she said, would be escorted out of gymnasiums at the end of games before another group was allowed in.

One downside, Smith Billing added, is that it limits school fundraising opportunities that usually take place during sporting events. But, she said, health and safety are what matter most.

“Not holding a contest with spectators is a financial hit, but we’re kind of getting used to that now and the emphasis isn’t on finances; it’s on keeping people safe,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi.

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