A player enters Casco Bay Arena for a youth hockey practice in Falmouth on Tuesday evening, Some youth sports programs have resumed practices and games  in counties designated as yellow by the state. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Officials in youth sports programs in Maine have been confused by guidance from state officials about whether they can safely resume activities for hundreds of young athletes in counties designated as “yellow” during the pandemic.

At issue is wording in the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, which were updated on Nov. 6 to align community-based sports, such as club sports teams, with school-based sports. The guidelines state that “organizers of community sports should suspend competitions and group practices in counties categorized as ‘yellow'” under the state’s health advisory system for schools.

In announcing the updated guidelines at the time, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew noted that “we are changing a number of our recommendations to requirements.”

Under Maine Principals’ Association guidelines, high schools located in yellow counties cannot hold practices or compete in athletic competition. Leaders of several youth sports groups interpreted the Community Sports Guidelines to mean that, like schools, they should not hold practices or play games in yellow counties.

That’s not so, according to Kate Foye, spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

“There seems to be a misconception that the color coding is for sports,” she said Tuesday. “It has nothing to do with athletics. We have had back-and-forth (conversations) about this, if a county is yellow what can you do for sports? The color coding is a tool of the Department of Education and does not apply to community sports.

“What we do say (when asked) is that if your county is yellow you should suspend group practices and competitions. But you’re not required to do that. … And different places are making different decisions.”

That came as a surprise to Matt Lambert, the president of the Casco Bay Hockey Association. He had reached out to economic and community development department officials to find out exactly what his programs could do while Cumberland County is under a yellow designation.

“We looked to Maine Amateur Hockey and the state of Maine for direction,” Lambert said. “The DECD provided the guidance. I thought we were under the same umbrella (as high school sports), but they notified us and Maine Amateur Hockey that the color coded system was for school-based athletics.”

Players in the Casco Bay Hockey Association practice Tuesday at Casco Bay Arena in Falmouth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He added that his group will not play games this weekend, but instead will continue the team practices that were allowed to begin on Jan. 4 under the Community Sports Guidelines.

Mike Keaney, the president of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, said he was also told by Department of Economic and Community Development officials that the color-coded system did not apply to community sports.

“I was told specifically those are not mandates, the Community Sports Guidelines,” Keaney said. “That was a question I asked a number of times. We’re following the guidelines as best we can and that’s all we can do right now.”

Foye explained in an email Tuesday that “this color coding system was designed for school systems as an indicator of the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities and is meant to be a tool for school administrators as they make decisions on what level of in-person learning schools are participating in. ”

She added, however, that “while the color coding system does not directly apply to community sports, per the Community Sports Guidelines, organizers of community sports should suspend competitions and group practices in counties categorized as ‘Yellow.'”

But later in an interview, Foye said that doesn’t mean they have to shut down. “It is not a requirement,” she said.

For many organizations, that has meant a return to practices. But other organizations, such as the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, and Maine Hoops, have scheduled games for this weekend, some in counties that carry a yellow designation. The MEAHA, for example, has games scheduled on its website at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn and the Biddeford Ice Arena. Both are located in “yellow” counties.

Maine Hoops has games scheduled for sites in Saco, Portland and Waterville.

Other youth programs are making different decisions. While the Sanford Titans swim program is not doing anything right now because York County has a yellow designation, other swim programs, such as Coastal Maine Aquatics and the Portland Porpoises have begun practices.

Neither the Maine Renegades basketball program, led by Rick Simonds, nor the Southern Maine Shock, headed by Rachele Burns, are doing anything right now. Simonds said he is waiting for the next color-coding update, scheduled for Friday, to determine when the program will begin.

“We are going to err on side of caution and take the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” he said. “As much as I would like to get going, especially with numbers rising the last two or three weeks in Maine, I think it’s dangerous.”

While Maine’s high school teams must adhere to guidelines established by the MPA regarding the color-coded system, Keaney said there is a difference between school-based sports and community-based programs.

“We’ve got associations that are technically in one county but practice in a rink that is in a different county. How does that apply?” he said. “We’ve got associations with kids from multiple counties. In central Maine we’ve got kids dispersed all over. And that’s not unique to hockey, it’s all sports. How does that apply?

“The color codes used in the DOE system are easy to apply. If you play for Cony High School, chances are you live in Kennebec County, whereas in youth sports you might have a kid from Biddeford playing on a team in Augusta. The one-size fits all regulations is tough to apply to community sports.”

According to the Community Sports Guidelines, teams in sports that are considered moderate risk such as basketball and ice hockey could begin playing games on Monday.

Lenny Holmes, the owner and operator of Maine Hoops, said he is following the same protocols he established before his program was shut down in November, where players register with the club and are assigned to small groups of cohorts, which will play against each other.

“We  just want the kids to be able to play,” he said.

Shari Levesque is the executive director of Soccer Maine, a statewide nonprofit association that serves as the governing body for youth soccer in the state.

“Our position right now is that, clearly, we take COVID community spread very seriously, but we are not a school organization and we are not under the MPA, so for us the county color designations do not apply to us as an organization,” Levesque said. “We have have always felt that way.”

Levesque added that Soccer Maine is not actively promoting competition during the winter months – though under the Community Sport Guidelines competition within a geographic area is permitted as of Monday. Rather, it is advocating for its organizations to hold team training sessions, in part to provide an outlet for high school-age athletes who can’t play or practice with their school teams.

“The safety and care of all of our athletes, our coaches and our volunteers is of utmost importance, but we also recognize the very real need for kids to engage in some physical activity right now,” Levesque said. “They’re facing isolation and it’s a strong mental health need here for our youth in Maine.”

Facilities, in particular ice rinks, have also had to determine what is allowed for their youth sports customers.

The Troubh Ice Arena in Portland is only allowing youth hockey teams to hold the skills, drills and conditioning activities that began on Dec. 7. That’s because the city’s legal advisers determined the arena would heed the recommendation in the Community Sports Guidelines to suspend games and group practices in yellow counties, rink manager Jake O’Donal said.

At both Biddeford Arena and Family Ice Center in Falmouth, practices and inter-squad scrimmages for both youth and adult leagues are taking place and regular youth hockey games are scheduled for the weekend, according to the Maine Amateur Hockey Association.

Family Ice facility manager Josh Brainerd said he believes the rinks in Cumberland and other yellow counties are operating in a similar fashion, limiting capacity, not allowing spectators, mandating mask use and doing their best to follow all the required guidelines.

“Do we feel we’re doing anything wrong and breaking any rules and the answer is ‘No,” Brainerd said. “Are we rolling out a safe product in a safe facility and complying with all the measures we need to comply with? I would say the answer is ‘Yes.'”

Brainerd added, “At Family Ice we really do care a lot about being a good resource for the community to have and enjoy, and it’s important for us not to just close the doors and walk away and say, ‘this is too hard.'”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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