Youngsters run through a basketball drill at Houlton Middle-High School Tuesday as part of the Maine Red Claws’ Youth Basketball Clinic. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Applying coronavirus-related guidelines for community sports around the state has spawned some confusion since the outset of the pandemic in Maine last March — and it continues.

The most recent interpretations, resulting from a Nov. 6 revision of the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, sought to align rules for youth-based sports programs and school programs and change recommendations into requirements.

It now appears club sports programs are subject to standards that do not include the green-yellow-red color coding established last August by the Maine Department of Education, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Included in the Community Sports Guidelines is the following statement: “Organizers of community sports should suspend competitions and group practices in counties categorized as ‘Yellow.’”

But a state spokesperson on Wednesday said the department’s color-coding system was designed for a different reason than to be part of the Community Sports Guidelines.

“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,” Kate Foye of the Department of Economic and Community Development said.

“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,’” Foye said. “‘Red’ suggests a county has a high risk of COVID-19 spread and that all organized sports are inadvisable.”

When asked if the language involving a yellow code represents a mandate or a recommendation, Foye left the door open for community youth sports to be played.

“It is not a requirement,” she said. “But as the language states, they should.”

The color-coded system is used to determine by county when it is safe for schools to conduct in-person instruction, with green for in-person, yellow for hybrid learning and red for remote learning.

The Maine Principals’ Association also uses the color codes to guide its interscholastic athletic programs. High schools designated yellow or red are not allowed to hold practices or participate in competitions with other schools.

The impact of color coding on community-based programs is a more pressing issue in southern Maine where four counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York — all have been yellow since at least mid-December.

An updated listing of the state’s 16 counties is scheduled for Friday.

Yellow means high school teams in those counties may not practice or play games against other teams until their county has regained green status. And community-based organizations offering sports programs while complying with the same guidelines as school-based sports had faced a similar fate.

The revelation that the color coding doesn’t apply to community sports programs came as a surprise to some southern Maine organizers.

“We looked to Maine Amateur Hockey and the state of Maine for direction,” Matt Lambert, president of the Casco Bay Hockey Association, told the Press Herald. “The DECD provided the guidance. I thought we were under the same umbrella [as the high schools], but they notified us and Maine Amateur Hockey that the color-coded system was for school-based athletics.”

Organizers of one of northern and eastern Maine’s leading basketball clubs, the Maine Lumberjacks, said they have followed the Community Sports Guidelines to a T during its recent programming, beginning with skill-building drills starting in December.

The club then on Jan. 4 began hosting intrasquad competition under Level 3 of the Community Sports Guidelines. It was the same day high school teams in green counties could begin formal winter sports practices.

“We have created several cohorts to stay below the minimum number of participants in each cohort,” the Lumberjacks’ Jon Glazier and Chris Lausier said in a joint statement. “Different cohorts are never in the gym at the same time.”

The Lumberjacks have continued to focus on within-team competition this week, even though Level 4 of the Community Sports Guidelines kicked in Monday and high school teams have begun playing regular-season games against regional opponents.

“Even though Level 4 states that you can begin play against teams in the same geographic area, we are not participating or involved with that in any way at this time,” Lausier and Glazier said. “We have followed all recommended guidelines with players and coaches wearing masks at all times and remaining socially distanced whenever possible.”

Shane Bond, president of the Maine Junior Black Bears, said his hockey club has adhered to a similar schedule with a week of power skating and drills leading to the start of full practices that began Monday.

Bond said the 12 teams associated with the Black Bears, based at Sawyer Arena in Bangor, have followed the state’s COVID-19 guidelines pertaining to community sports, including safety protocols.

“I check the [state] website every day and nothing has changed since Dec. 4,” he said. 

Bond said the most challenging part of dealing with the situation is the uncertainty.

“You never know what is going to happen tomorrow. People want to get back to normalcy,” he said.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...