Winter sports practices, extracurriculars allowed to resume

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakotans appear to have largely accepted the state’s new mask mandate but they successfully cried foul when it came to limiting high school sports to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

Giving in to political and public outcry, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has reversed course and will allow winter sports practices and other extracurricular activities to resume at the end of November, although sports competition will remain suspended until mid-December.

Burgum announced the change late Wednesday with House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner.

Burgum’s office said the move follows feedback from legislators, parents, school administrators, students, coaches, mental health professionals and others concerned about the impact the suspension of activities would have on students’ well-being.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor’s office had been inundated with calls and messages from constituents opposed to pausing sports practices and other activities.

Nowatzki said the governor did not cave to pressure but instead “responded to constituent feedback.”

“Our goals remain unchanged: to protect the most vulnerable, provide relief to our stressed hospitals and health care workers, keep students in school and businesses open, and preserve the winter sports season,” Burgum said in a statement.

The order issued last week also required people to wear masks inside businesses and public buildings, as well as outside when physical distancing isn’t possible. It includes exceptions for children under age 5, individuals with a medical or mental health condition or disability that makes it unreasonable to wear a mask, and during religious services.

Wardner said the issue of suspending sports practices and extracurricular activities was one of the most controversial topics he’s seen in nearly 30 years in the Legislature. Some people “griped” about the mask mandate, but barring the high school practices “was the No.1 complaint by a long shot,” he said.

“Three-to-one, people were mad about the practices,” he said.

Wardner said the governor did not consult with legislative leaders before issuing the executive order last week, but met them after.

“There was pressure from us and others,” Wardner said of amending the order. “I’m an old high school teacher and coach, and I know that students would group up and go somewhere else — so we were solving nothing.”

The governor plans to issue an amended order that will allow practices to resume for high school winter sports and association, community and club sports for youth and adults starting Nov. 30. Competition is suspended until Dec. 14. The four-week time frame will allow two 14-day incubation cycles to pass before competition resumes.

Coaches and athletic associations have agreed there will be no travel for association activities outside home territory, no locker room use, coaches masked at all times, no spectators and facilities restricted to players, coaches and staff only.

State health officials reported Thursday that there were 276 people in North Dakota hospitalized with COVID-19, which was 21 fewer than Wednesday.

Statewide, there were 179 available inpatient beds and only 12 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota hospitals, according to state data.

The state reported 10 new coronavirus-related deaths, increasing its death toll since the pandemic started to 795. The death count is the eighth highest per capita in the nation, at 102 deaths per 100,000 people.

North Dakota continued to rank first in the country for new cases per capita in the last two weeks. One in every 79 people in the state tested positive in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Burgum said about 60 U.S. Air Force medical personnel, who are primarily nurses, will deploy to North Dakota on Saturday, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the state’s request for federal aid. The medical teams will help support at least six hospitals in Minot, Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks starting next week.

A temporary staffing agency will also provide an additional 60 nursing staff for hospitals and nursing homes as early as this weekend, Burgum said.