IRON RANGE — For the second time this year student-athletes across the state watched their seasons cut short by the coronavirus that is currently spreading at a record pace through Minnesota and St. Louis County.
Health officials reported 7,877 new infections and 72 people dead from COVID-19 on Thursday, including 348 new cases in the county, all record highs. Additionally, two people from St. Louis County — one in the late 80s and one in their mid-90s — died from the virus.
The grim statistics underscore the worsening state of the pandemic in Minnesota and what charged Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday to issue an executive order to halt indoor and outdoor practices, games, workouts and tournaments as just one of the steps aimed at curbing the current surge that is straining local hospitals.
“Much has been asked of you, and we need to ask a little more,” Walz said Wednesday. “We’re at a dangerous point with this pandemic.”
Walz said throughout the week, leading up to the announcement, that the virus is so widespread in the state it will begin to impact sports in huge numbers, be it athletes, parents, coaches and referees. Hitting the pause button not only stops that potential spread, but could block the virus from further running a course through the school system from community transmission and direct contact.
“We have to beat the virus,” Walz said Monday, adding that he has a desire to see kids in sports, including his own 14-year-old son, who made his first school team this year. “We can’t do both simultaneously at the numbers we’re seeing.”
Hibbing Athletic Director Meghan Potter wasn’t caught off guard by the governor’s decision.
“It’s always in the back of everyone’s minds,” Potter said. “You’re always hearing about it. It may have shocked a few people, but it wasn’t a surprise to me. It’s a matter of COVID being so ramped up in the communities now.
“It was only a matter of time where you started seeing it in activities. We did an excellent job following all of the rules and keeping kids as safe as possible, but the hospitals are overwhelmed. The teachers are overwhelmed. We don’t have enough bus drivers, so that made it inevitable.”
Eveleth-Gilbert Athletic Director JoJo Scott said she believes everyone “saw it coming’’ with the increase in COVID-19 cases in the area.
Hearing word of a four-week time frame leaking out before Walz’s address Wednesday night, she wondered if it would actually be longer or shorter than the Dec. 18 end date in the emergency executive order. Coming back the week before Christmas would be difficult, she added.
According to Jamie Steinberg, who is in his second year as athletic director in Chisholm, they were happy to get the ball rolling in the fall, but he knew at some point, there might be a problem.
“We knew there were going to be some complications that were out of our control,” Steinberg said. “Either the state high school league or governor were going to step in. We just didn’t know the timeline as to when it would get dialed back.
“There was going to be something. That guided our mindsets that something inevitable was going to happen. That doesn’t take away the work we had to put in to make the best out of our situation.”
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Wednesday night that the state’s data on organized sports is a few weeks old, but reported 7,200 primary patients linked to sports, which doesn’t include the infections spread from that initial positive case.
“What we know about the sports cases is that it’s not only games and practices, but social activities that accompany that,” Malcolm said.
When asked Tuesday about the organized sports pause and whether teams are seeing worse infection rates than other activities, the governor said he’s listening to the urgings of health experts and what governors from other states are considering.
“I get this probably better than anyone who has served in this job,” said Walz, a former football coach and teacher. “Every single industry says it's not coming from them. The trajectory of this is simply unsustainable. The idea that we can go on like this simply isn’t sustained by the facts.”
Virginia head football coach Matt Anderson experienced a rollercoaster of emotions Wednesday before and after Walz pausing high school sports for four weeks.
Anderson watched film with his team yesterday and went through the scenarios of being able to play or not play.
“We were pretty confident as a staff that we were going to have a game’’ — but then the executive order came out.
Anderson asked Virginia Activities Director Josh Lamppa if the game could be moved from Saturday to Friday and Lamppa said he was already working on it.
“The way it rolled out, these kids get to play one more football game’’ at No. 1 Aitkin at 6 p.m. today. “I hope they're excited. This is what we wanted.’’
The Blue Devils have already been through a lot this season after their football stadium was torn down to make way for a new Miners complex, practices were moved to Mesabi Range College and games were played at Mesabi East or Mountain Iron-Buhl.
“The announcement last night was just one more bump in the road.’’
Nashwauk-Keewatin Athletic Director Kyle Giorgi wasn’t surprised about the news.
“I was keeping track of it on social media,” Giorgi said. “I also talked to other athletic director’s and coaches to see what they were saying. Tom Hauser had tweeted some stuff, and he was right on with some of things being shut down.
“I knew it was a possibility, especially with where the numbers are right now. Once it becomes official, it means a little more and starts to sink in.”
For school sports teams, the order marks another loss in a year of sacrifices that cost student-athletes the end of their seasons last winter and led to the cancellation of spring sports. Fall sports like football and volleyball, already playing through condensed seasons that were on the precipice of finishing in mere weeks, will come to an unceremonious end at 11:59 p.m. today when the order goes into effect.
All the while, the students have been asked to navigate a shifting landscape just to attend school since classes were first closed in mid-March and are now moving in and out of hybrid and distance learning models across the Iron Range.
What happens next for fall activities that were cut short and winter sports practices that weren’t allowed to start on Monday?
“It’s just a waiting game now,’’ Scott said about winter sports starting up. “We’re just kind of in limbo too as ADs (activities directors). There’s not much we can do. … We just need to wait for the next word from the governor’s office.’’
The Golden Bears volleyball team went to International Falls for their season’s “last hurrah,’’ Scott added. “I’m sure they’ll be fired up and ready to play.’’
“I think our coaches are as bummed as anyone else. Their job is larger because they really want to maintain contact’’ somehow with the athletes.
E-G head volleyball coach Beth Bittmann said her team was “pretty bummed out’’ after hearing the news Wednesday night. However, “we’re thankful for what we’ve had so far.’’
She was looking forward to Thursday night’s game, even though her team is missing three starters due to COVID. Four or five others are back after the team’s recent quarantine, but the Bears will only have six varsity players against the Broncos.
She told her team to “look at it as one more game that we get to play’’ and hopefully create some memories. “That’s how we have to look at it.’’
In Nashwauk-Keewatin, the number of cases per 10,000 determined what kind of educational process could be used, either in-person, hybrid or distance.
Anything under 10 was in-person. Anything above 10 was hybrid for high school and in-person elementary. Above 20 was hybrid and hybrid, above 30 was distance and hybrid and above 40 is distance and distance.
“We were over 100,” Giorgi said. “At the beginning of the school year, we were at 3.5, so we’re astronomically higher than we were at the start of school. They’re not seeing a decrease in the number.
“They expect it to get over 200.”
In reality, the well being of the student/athletes and the communities they live in are the No. 1 priority.
“Our No. 1 job as educators is to make sure our students are taken care of, above all else,” Potter said. “We have to find ways to continue to play, but allow them to be safe, with minimal risk.
“We have to minimize the spread, and right now, that’s not happening. We all want our kids to play and participate, just for the mental-health aspect of being on a team. We want them to be on the court and field, playing for championships.”
Giorgi agreed as Nashwauk-Keewatin transitions to distance learning Monday.
“We have to keep them safe, but we also have to consider the coaches, officials and other people that are involved,” Giorgi said. “Their health might not be as good as the younger populations, but even in healthy individuals, we’ve seen some severe effects.
“It’s a lower rate, but it can happen. Just because you’re a healthy individual doesn’t mean COVID won’t affect you. We don’t know the long-term effects.”
As for the long-term effects on athletics, only time will tell.
“Moving forward, the high school league is working hard to give winter and spring athletes a season, with a culminating event,” Potter said. “We don’t know what it will look like yet, but we want to give them some kind of reward because they deserve it.
“We’re asking people to be patient and help us reduce the spread. It’s keeping them at home, so we can get them out there playing sooner than later.”
That’s where the unknown comes into play. If families follow the guidelines, there’s a better chance youth and high school sports will resume. If not, the pause will continue.
“The governor could come back on the 19th and expand it,” Potter said. “Parents and community members should follow the rules, so they can play sports.”
Giorgi, who does coach boys basketball in Nashwauk-Keewatin, is all for playing, but only if the number of cases start to come down.
“I feel bad for the kids right now,” Giorgi said. “I don’t want the basketball season pushed back, but as long as we have a season, that’s all that matters. When it starts is irrelevant as long as we can sustain it and keep it going.
“If it’s Dec. 14 or Jan. 4, that doesn’t matter. Pushing it back isn’t the worst thing. The big thing is having a season. Keeping the kids motivated and focused is my job. We can only control the controllables. How they react to what’s happening, that’s what’s important.”
If the winter season does begin, area athletic directors will be pushed to the limit trying to fill schedules and getting game workers.
“It’s been tough even when we haven’t had to deal with the shutdowns and pauses,” Steinberg said. “To have this happen, for AD’s it’s a continuation of the many problems we’re facing.
“I can’t explain if it’s easier on us, or if it’s a continuation of the many problems we’re already facing. We have to look forward and make the best of a situation that doesn't seem attainable.”
Steinberg said they have to make the best out of a bad situation.
“All of the AD’s, we’ll try to mold and blend our situations the best that we can to have the best scenarios for the kids and the coaches,” Steinberg said. “You have to expect the unexpected.
“It was a no-win situation. We have to let our leaders lead and not continue to push back on this. We have to trust our leaders, set a good example and look forward to a future that gets back to normal. That’s what we have to believe in, like it or not.”
In Eveleth-Gilbert, other concerns are coming from spring sports coaches who are curious as to when their start day might be, Scott added.
The coronavirus will most likely have the final say.
“I really hope that this does improve. It may take longer than the four weeks,’’ she said.
The governor’s executive order will not apply to professional or college sports, but limits those games to players, coaches and essential staff, meaning no fans, family or other staff members are permitted at sporting events or practices.
Saying there’s “great inequality” between these sports and high school, Walz and DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said Wednesday that different factors play into the decision not to pause their season.
Grove said college sports are under the jurisdiction of their governing bodies and professional sports are considered workplaces, not just entertainment venues. Walz added that the Minnesota Vikings, for example, are regularly testing every person and, in some cases, creating pods to control movement.
“We’re not testing every single high school athlete,” he said. “The mitigation efforts they have put in place are vastly different.”