Football practice may continue beginning Aug. 3, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the head of the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) saying it is critical that all involved wear masks and follow other safety protocols to ensure a safe and complete season of play.
The process, according to Gov. Hutchinson, will involve the AAA submitting plans for playing football, volleyball and conducting cheerleading to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH).
“That will allow the Department of Health to review and develop the guidelines for mitigating the virus risk associated with contact sports,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
The guidance announced Friday (July 31) during the governor’s daily COVID-19 briefing allows AAA-sanctioned football practice to begin Aug. 3 and continue through Aug. 7 with no-contact team drills while wearing helmets. Volleyball practice is also allowed to begin Aug. 3. Lance Taylor, executive director of the Arkansas Activities Association, said cheerleading may move forward and band rules should be out by Aug. 5.
The governor also announced the creation of an advisory group to make recommendations and to help the ADH “in the best practices for protecting the student-athletes and school personnel.” Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe will chair the group. Following are the other members of the advisory group.
• Dr. Lowry Barnes, orthopedic surgeon and chairman of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Department of Orthopedics
• Jacob Brown, Therapeutic Family Services
• Paul Calley, dean of students, assistant football coach, Little Rock Southwest High School
• Jason Cates, athletic trainer at Cabot School District and chairman of the Arkansas Sports Medicine Committee
• Laura Crow, volleyball coach at Conway High School
• Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, state epidemiologist with the Arkansas Department of Health
• Fitz Hill, State Board of Education
• Dr. Michael Israel, associate professor of Adolescent Medicine and Director of Sports Medicine at Arkansas Children’s
• Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood
• Janet McDonald, behavioral health professional at Pinnacle Point
• Lance Taylor, director of the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA)
• Dr. Joel Tumlison, physician specialist, Arkansas Department of Health
Gov. Hutchinson said sports is an “important part of the development of our youth,” and without a regular sports season “many student-athletes” will travel out of state which increases the risk of bringing the virus back to Arkansas. The governor also said returning to sports, cheerleading and other activities will provide lessons for returning to school later in August, and “we will improve our safety protocols.”
The governor also had a message for players and coaches.
“Then after practice, I want you to grab your masks so that you can protect others that you might be around. And this is very important as we enter into the season, that the risk is not just on the practice field, but the risk is also as we go about the community,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “And our coaches, our trainers, need to emphasize this to the players. They need to understand it, and they need to set the examples for their peers about wearing masks and even during this time of athletic competition to support our state in staying healthy along with everyone else.”
Holding up a face mask, Taylor said following all safety protocols on and off the field will determine if a full season is played.
“This [mask] is what is going to let us play this year. This is going to determine conference championships, regional championships and state championships. … We’ve been challenged, so we have to help get our [COVID] numbers down,” Taylor said.
When asked by a reporter about the chances of a full season, interim Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said “it may go forward, it may collapse on itself” depending on if players and coaches wear masks and follow all the other guidelines.
Noting the testing and contact tracing in place for higher education, Gov. Hutchinson said he hopes to have a “similar type of confidence in K through 12 and K through 12 sports that we have more localized point-of-care testing.”
Gov. Hutchinson announced July 27 that the ADH ordered 200 BD Veritor COVID-19 test machines that will come with testing kits and necessary supplies. They should begin to arrive next week, and officials have not determined where to locate the devices.
“We want to see how that [200 units] can fit into the framework of our schools, and working with our local providers to make sure that we can have access to the testing. So that’s something that we’re continuing to work on,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
UAMS announced Friday that its Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health and UAMS Northwest Regional Campus in Fayetteville have been authorized by the ADH to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing for public and private colleges and universities in Arkansas. The effort is supported by $5 million in federal coronavirus aid that was allocated by the Arkansas Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Steering Committee created by Gov. Hutchinson. The project will involve establishing two contact tracing centers, one in central Arkansas and one in northwest Arkansas. The work will be done by 75 contact tracers, two center directors, and an assistant center director.
“Our goal is to protect the students and employees on each of these campuses,” said Dr. Jay Gandy, associate provost and project lead for the UAMS Northwest Regional Campus. “This group effort will allow us to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic among the higher education institutions in Arkansas.”