California issues youth sports guidance for return to games; no competitions before Jan. 25

Group of balls

Sports are grouped by physical contact levels and a county’s coronavirus risk tier.


Nine months after shutting down youth, high school and adult recreational sports, the California Department of Public Health quietly issued detailed guidance Dec. 14 creating a pathway to resume competition in the state.

Just don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

No competitions are allowed before Jan. 25, though that date will be reassessed by Jan. 4. And a sport’s authorization is based on levels of physical contact and a county’s color tier for coronavirus risk.

Football and especially basketball will need a significant reduction in coronavirus case rates in nearly all of California’s 58 counties in order to play.

Youth sports leaders have been asking the state for detailed guidance since April. CDPH issued a brief document in August that permitted conditioning practices with distancing and safety protocols but did not allow competition or differentiate among sports, leaving California one of a handful of states not allowed to play games.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports, canceled fall competitions and compacted the traditional three seasons into two, with practice for football and others in the new “winter” session that was scheduled to begin Dec. 12.

But on Dec. 1, CIF postponed that until January because, it said in a statement, “it does not expect the CDPH will issue any guidance allowing for schools to return to full practice and competition until after Jan. 1, 2021, at the earliest.”

Thirteen days later, CDPH posted guidance on its website with little fanfare.

“It’s a surprise because they said there would be no word before Jan. 1,” CIF San Diego Section Commissioner Joe Heinz said Dec. 14. “But this is par for the course. I guess some news is better than no news. We would have liked to get this in October.

“We still have a chance to play. We have guidelines to work with. We’ll have to see what impact this has.”

Under the new guidance, sports are categorized by indoor or outdoor and low, moderate or high contact. They are then grouped by risk tier.

San Diego County and 53 other California counties are in the purple, or “widespread,” coronavirus tier and likely will require weeks, if not months, to have case metrics drop to a level with lower restrictions. Only outdoor, low-contact sports are allowed in the purple tier; those include swimming, golf, tennis, cross country and track and field.

Baseball, field hockey, girls lacrosse and softball are among outdoor, moderate-contact sports allowed in the red, or “substantial,” tier, one level better than purple.

Football, soccer and indoor volleyball require the orange, or “moderate” tier.

Arguably the biggest loser in the new guidance is basketball, which is classified as an indoor, high-contact activity with the greatest risk. It can only be played in the yellow tier, which indicates “minimal” spread of the virus.

Since the colored tier system was implemented in late August, San Diego County has been only red or purple.

Youth club sports aren’t waiting, and hundreds of teams have traveled to Arizona, Nevada or Utah for tournaments. The new guidance says “teams must not participate in out-of-state tournaments,” although enforcement might be difficult.

The guidance allows for competition only between teams in the same county or from neighboring counties if the color tiers in both permit that sport. All tournaments are banned, except for individual sports such as swimming, tennis and track and field that receive authorization from local health departments.

The guidance also says athletes “should wear face coverings when participating in the activity, even with heavy exertion as tolerated, both indoors and outdoors (unless the face covering could become a hazard).” Some volleyball clubs in the county require players to wear masks during practice, but most outdoor sports clubs do not.