HARTFORD — The strategies were new. The response sounded familiar.
In an effort to salvage a fall 11-on-11 football season, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference presented the state Department of Public Health with new ideas for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 at a Friday-morning meeting.
But DPH acting commissioner Deidre Gifford did not sound ready to change her department’s recommendation against playing football in the fall. She pointed to outbreaks around the state and a rise in infections among adolescents.
“That, combined with going into school, going into colder weather, the onset of influenza season, continues to lead the Department of Public Health to say that high-risk activity really should be avoided at this point in time,” Gifford said after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting on the second floor of the state Capitol.
Glenn Lungarini, the CIAC’s executive director, said some of those strategies included limiting the number of people on each sideline, having players wear face masks or face shields, providing a designated area where players could remove masks to catch their breath and other ideas.
“When we get the feedback from them, it will give the CIAC more information in terms of recommendations before the decision we have to make whether or not can move forward,” Lungarini said.
“We had a lot of discussion today about how impact, in terms of a collision sport like football, differs from contact sports. Those were good conversations. Beyond that, talking about things like sanitation methods, spacing out, not only on the field of play but on the sidelines.”
DPH will review those, and the CIAC will make its decisions off the new recommendations.
“I think (Gifford’s) recommendation would be put it off to the spring,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Friday afternoon in Stamford. “We’ll know a lot more. It’ll be a lot safer. We’ll have a lot better testing. We’ll figure out whether the masks work. But right now the decision’s in CIAC’s court.”
If the CIAC does go ahead, schools and districts may choose not to participate. Bridgeport, via the school administration, and New Haven, by its health department, have already said they won’t participate in 11-on-11 football. Other boards of education have at least discussed opting out this fall.
Lamont noted that other states are trying some of the mitigation strategies the CIAC proposed, which will provide data in a few months that the state doesn’t have now.
“The CIAC acknowledged that these strategies are not proven,” Gifford said. “They involve some alterations to the helmet. We just don’t know whether they will reduce the risk of transmission by a little, a lot or not at all.”
“We continue to think that we will learn more about these and other strategies as time goes on.”
Neither side gave a timetable for their next communication, but Lungarini said DPH understands the urgency: They’re running out of time to get in a meaningful season, originally scheduled to begin Oct. 1, while allowing players to condition fully before they play.
Lungarini, associate executive director Gregg Simon and others arrived at the Capitol around 9:30 a.m. Paul Mounds, Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff, came across the hall from the governor’s office about 10 minutes later with Gifford and David Lehman, commissioner of economic and community development. The door closed at 9:43 without the governor in attendance. Other doctors and politicians joined in by phone or online.
“We did discuss in detail the mitigating strategies,” Gifford said. “We did agree both on the high-risk nature of football and the unproven nature of some of those strategies.”
Initial thoughts were that the meeting would last about an hour, but it kept going.
After saying in the summer it wouldn’t postpone a fall sport to the spring, the CIAC allowed conditioning in all fall sports to begin last month, only to announce on Sept. 4 that the DPH’s unwillingness to recommend playing the sport wouldn’t allow it to hold 11-on-11, full-contact football.
Teams were allowed to continue conditioning.
Players rallied in Hartford on Wednesday at the Capitol, drawing an estimated 1,200 supporters, trying to get those involved to change their minds, and Lamont said that night he’d ask the CIAC and DPH to meet.
Youth football has been allowed in the state since July 6.
“We’ve enabled some choice, and this choice has been ultimately up to the CIAC in terms of ‘go’ versus no-go,'” Lehman said.
A spring season has the support of several coaches.
“If you were to make a decision to move football to a defined period of time … you’re doing that without the knowledge of what’s happening with other sports as well as the COVID climate at that time,” Lungarini said.
Mounds acknowledged that the CIAC wanted to exhaust its fall options before looking toward other times of year.
“I think they’re looking for an endorsement, in a lot of ways, from the Department of Public Health,” Mounds said, “and similar to the way the CIAC has to represent their member organizations, Commissioner Gifford has to represent the health of 3.3 million people in the State of Connecticut.”
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With reporting from Veronica Del Valle in Stamford.
Updated, 5:15 p.m., with comment from Gov. Ned Lamont.