BILLINGS — No spectators will be allowed at Yellowstone County high school and middle school sporting events this fall, according to the county's guidelines, which were announced Tuesday.

The plan includes 18 requirements for athletic activities, four for associated activities and three for media. Some of these guidelines might be relaxed if COVID-19 data indicate that it's safe to do so, Yellowstone County health officer John Felton said at a press conference. As the county health officer, he can cancel events and close buildings and facilities in an effort to protect the community from a public health threat, according to Montana law.

"As we seek to balance safety and some sense of normalcy, some things must be changed," Felton said. "Being more restrictive in our requirements allows us to ease restrictions if the conditions warrant. I sincerely hope that we can do that as the school year and seasons progress."

Many elements of Yellowstone County's plan are aligned with the Montana High School Association's fall sports guidelines, which were released last month. The MHSA sponsors cross country, football, Class AA and A golf, soccer and volleyball in the fall.

In addition to the MHSA's guidelines, Yellowstone County's plan was based on discussions with the county's activities directors and superintendents, the Office of Public Instruction reopening guidance, Gov. Steve Bullock's plan for reopening schools and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

"Everything we do is for the first time. This is the first time we'll have had school athletics and activities since COVID-19 has been around," Felton said. "We just have to see how it goes."

Billings Central athletic director Mike Ryan and Billings Public Schools AD Mark Wahl also spoke and fielded questions from the media at the press conference. Representatives from the Huntley Project School District couldn't attend but issued a statement of support from superintendent Mark Wandle and athletic director Tim Bastian. 

"The easy thing would have been to cancel activities," Wahl said. "We are so truly appreciative of the opportunity to start activities."

Athletic event guidelines

Attendance at athletic events will be limited to players, team staff (coaches, managers, trainers, etc.), game management (officials, timekeepers, etc.) pep bands, cheerleaders and media. The county’s plan noted that many professional sporting events have been held without spectators. The NBA, MLB, NHL and PGA Tour are among the leagues currently playing without fans.

"This is not an easy decision or one taken lightly," Felton said. "It is a decision that recognizes the importance of allowing our children and youth some semblance of normalcy in these decidedly unusual times.

"It recognizes what I have said over and over: we cannot eliminate risk, but we must manage and mitigate risk to the best of our collective ability and wisdom."

Some sporting events will be broadcast by the National Federation of State High School Associations on the NFHS Network, Ryan said. Those online streams require a subscription. Ryan noted that cross country and golf events will not likely be broadcast, but most Yellowstone County facilities have NFHS cameras for football, soccer and volleyball games. All of School District 2's high school gyms and Daylis Stadium have cameras, Wahl said. Every game in those venues will be live streamed, Wahl added, and he hopes live radio broadcasts will continue. The school district is also exploring other options, including live television coverage for some varsity games.

While spectators won't be allowed to attend, there will not be a limit to how many team members can be at a sporting event or practice. The 50-person gathering limit in Bullock's phased reopening plan does not apply to school activities.

Concessions will not be offered at Yellowstone County sporting events.

If a team member tests positive for COVID-19, RiverStone Health will conduct a case investigation. The infected individual will be required to isolate, and identified close contacts will need to quarantine (a close contact is anyone who was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before illness onset — two days before a positive specimen is collected, for asymptomatic cases — until the patient is isolated, according to the CDC).

"We acknowledge there will likely be cases of COVID-19 associated with these activities and fully expect that this plan will evolve over time as the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 shifts in our community," Felton said. 

Team members and personnel will be screened for symptoms of the novel coronavirus before each practice and competition by school officials. The screening process includes questions about out-of-state travel and household members being tested. Anyone who screens positive for COVID-19 symptoms, even mild ones, will be removed from the practice or competition.

The county's plan mandates face mask wearing for team personnel and players in most situations, with the exception of "exercising in a strenuous manner." No runners, football players, golfers, soccer players or volleyball players will be required to wear a mask while competing in a game, meet, match or tournament. But those athletes must put on face coverings while on the sideline, during timeouts, during halftime and breaks in play or practice, among other situations. Masks cannot be shared.

Football players must wear a mask whenever they are out of the game for more than one play, and helmets with face shields do not meet the county’s face covering requirement. Golfers must wear masks whenever two or more of them are not at least six feet apart. Soccer players are required to wear face coverings whenever they aren’t in the game, and cross country runners will be required to wear them whenever they aren’t running.

Outdoor sport athletes will also be required to stand or sit at least six feet apart while waiting to compete or practice.

For volleyball, fall’s lone indoor sport, sideline chairs in each gym will be placed six feet apart (to the extent possible), assigned to a specific team member and have a mask for each of them.

Yellowstone County’s plan encourages coaches to limit intermixing by having specific groups of athletes stay together during practice drills, weightlifting, the team bus, team meetings and during overnight trips.

Athletes traveling to away events will be assigned seats on team buses with the same seat mates, and the seating order should remain the same throughout the season. The plan also requires sanitation of each bus after arrival to each site and before re-boarding for another trip. Athletes will be allowed to ride home with parents/guardians or designated coaches, and any team member who gets sick during travel will not be allowed to ride with the team. A family member, guardian or designated school official must transport that person, with as much distance as possible and mask wearing in the vehicle.

Anybody associated with a team who shares a ride in a vehicle other than the team bus must wear a mask throughout each trip.

Out-of-town travel is discouraged. If a trip requires an overnight stay, athletes should room with those they sit next to on the team bus. They must be masked in public spaces where they’re unable to distance, as well as indoor spaces and sleeping rooms except while they’re sleeping, showering, brushing their teeth, etc.

Each team member must have his or her own water bottle or cup at practices and events. A team support person will be in charge of refilling each container while wearing a mask and gloves.

Any meals for teams traveling to competitions should be boxed, and team members are encouraged to pre-order meals and use “grab and go” strategies.

Consequences for schools or individuals who don't follow these guidelines were not specified at the press conference, although Ryan said the MHSA will dole out punishment in those cases. Wahl believes athletes, coaches and other team personnel will strictly follow Yellowstone County's plan.

"Can we guarantee that every kid is going to be honest and disclose an illness or whatever? Not necessarily," Wahl said. "But our coaches are pretty good at recognizing when kids aren't themselves, and I have no doubt at all that coaches will do the right thing when they recognize that there's a situation, whether it's the best player or not."

Associated activities requirements

Extra-curricular activities that intersect with athletic events, such as pep band and cheerleading, will be allowed with proper physical distancing between participants and team members.

Cheer/spirit squads can only perform cheers that are physically distanced, with stunts allowed per MHSA guidelines.

Instrument “spit valves” will not be allowed to be emptied onto the floor or other hard surface used by multiple people at one time.

All of these associated activities will be subject to the same guidelines as athletes, coaches and other team personnel.

Media guidelines

Members of the media will be allowed to cover sporting events in-person with some restrictions: they must be masked at all times, they must film or conduct interviews from a distance of at least six feet and audio recording devices must be sanitized after every interview.

County-by-county differences

Felton, Ryan and Wahl acknowledged that not every county has the same guidelines as Yellowstone. Park County, for instance, currently has restrictions related to community spread of COVID-19 in other counties.

The Park County health department has advised its schools not to send teams to Yellowstone or Big Horn counties, and not to allow teams from those two counties to come to Park County, according to Livingston athletic director Nate Parseghian. Yellowstone and Big Horn lead Montana with 654 and 245 active coronavirus cases, respectively, as of Tuesday.

As a result of this guidance, a golf tournament hosted by Livingston on Friday will not include Yellowstone County schools Billings Central and Laurel or Big Horn County’s Hardin.

But that decision does not mean all fall sporting events between teams from Park County and Yellowstone or Big Horn will be canceled. Parseghian and other school administrators are in constant communication with county health officials, he said, and he hopes his teams will be able play against their Yellowstone and Big Horn foes down the road.

“We’re going to look at things on a week-to-week basis,” Parseghian said. “We’re asking for flexibility with our community.”

Some counties will be less restrictive than Park and Yellowstone. Flathead County, for example, will allow two spectators per uniformed participant at competitions, with masks and distancing required.

Some counties have different interpretations of the 50-person gathering limit, as well, Wahl said.

“We need to make sure that we understand when our teams travel what the restrictions or requirements are in those counties so that we can abide by them,” Felton said.

Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com and follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores_BG

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