Youth and adult sports in Minnesota were given the go-ahead to start practices on Jan. 4 in the latest executive order announced by Gov. Tim Walz on Dec. 16.

Emergency Executive order 20-99 that put a pause on sports for Minnesota State High School League member schools to help slow the spread of COVID-19 is set to expire after Dec. 18. The pause was extended by executive order 20-103 through Jan. 3 at 11:59 p.m.

On Jan. 4, dance teams through the MSHSL can resume practices, while gymnastics, girls and boys basketball, girls and boys hockey, wrestling, boys swimming and diving, girls and boys Nordic skiing and girls and boys alpine skiing may begin in-person practices.

State officials are expected to offer future guidance on when games and meets can begin, but the first date of competition against other programs has not yet been determined.

“We can limit risk for participants, coaches and families by first returning to practices in smaller groups with heightened precautions,” Walz said in a release announcing the new executive order. “By starting small and keeping transmission low now, we can begin to consider returning to games and competitions that require interactions between different teams and the presence of spectators.”

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At its Dec. 3 board of directors meeting, the MSHSL approved a Jan. 4 start date for winter sports as one of three models presented for winter and spring sports seasons. MSHSL bylaws mandate 10 days of practice for most winter sports programs, except for the five days of practice required for Nordic and alpine skiing, before competition can begin.

“While we recognize that our students, coaches and families are anxious to return to activities and athletics, the Jan. 4, 2021 date aligns well with many member schools’ calendars as they return from extended breaks,” MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens said in a release. “This opportunity to participate in athletics and activities also comes with great responsibility. It is critical that all students, coaches, directors and officials maintain the highest standard of health and safety, both in and outside of school. Everyone must actively share the responsibility of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping themselves and others safe and healthy.”

Walz said in his address to announce the new executive order that there is a need to get kids participating in their activities again.

He cautioned, though, that even as declining case rates and the prospect of a widely-distributed vaccine bring hope, there still needs to be difficult measures of the current dial back into January to try to slow the spread and keep from overwhelming hospitals.

Minnesota reported an additional 2,323 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, Dec. 15, on just over 32,000 tests. With 384,164 cases having now been identified, it is the first day below 3,000 cases in six weeks. The case positivity rate as a seven day average continues a slow decline, and is now at 10.9%. The state has 1,309 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 300 in the ICU. That's 97 fewer beds in use than on Friday, Dec. 11.

“The advocates who are out there for youth sports, if I’m not in this job, I’m in that camp,” Walz, a former teacher and coach, said. “It’s what I did my whole life. I understand what comes out of that. It’s not just about sports and winning a game. It’s about the holistic part of a child and learning what it takes to be a part of a team. It’s the mental and physical aspects of it that tie right into the academics in our schools. I want to just be very clear that the passion around youth sports, fitness, activities, those things are healthy.”

Walz said that while noting that there is greater risk involved through team sports that bring athletes and coaches together in groups than with individual exercise.

“But organized sports also provide developmental opportunities for youth and mental and physical health benefits for Minnesotans of all ages,” Walz said in the release. “So we should start to bring back these activities if we can do so safely.”