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Judge grants restraining order to allow high school and youth sports to resume in San Diego County

A Let Them Play Rally last month called for the return of youth sports.
(Toni Beckett )

Hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that some high school and youth sports could return to outdoor play as soon as next week under certain restrictions, a judge ruled Feb. 19 that all sports could resume in San Diego County as long as they “follow the same or similar COVID-19 protocols imposed for competition in professional and/or collegiate sports within the county.”

Superior Court Judge Earl Maas heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Nicholas Gardinera, a senior football player at Scripps Ranch High School, and Cameron Woolsey, a senior football player at Mission Hills High, against Newsom, the California Department of Public Health, the county and its chief medical officer, Wilma Wooten.

The players were seeking the resumption of high school football, saying there “is no medical evidence that competing in team sports is safe for college and/or professional athletes but not high school athletes.”

In his ruling granting a temporary restraining order, Maas agreed, stating young athletes are not at greater risk of contracting or transmitting the COVID-19 coronavirus than their professional or collegiate counterparts.

The judge said he was not persuaded by arguments from the state and county that professional and collegiate teams represent a lower risk of spreading the virus due to there being far fewer pro and college teams.

“The game is the same, the risk of spread is similar, the youth are already practicing, and with school closures or limitations on attendance, youth are isolated,” Maas wrote.

Another hearing is slated for early next month on a preliminary injunction in the case.

“We’re very excited,” said Marlon Gardinera, Nicholas’ father and the head football coach at Scripps Ranch. “We got some good news in court and the governor’s morning press conference was good news, too.

“Now I hope the indoor sports keep pushing so they can play.”

Newsom’s morning announcement came after new guidance from the California Department of Public Health that outdoor sports could return as soon as Feb. 26 in counties where there are 14 or fewer coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents.

California public health officials loosened the rules Feb. 19 for youth sports, allowing all outdoor sports to resume in counties where coronavirus case rates are at or below 14 per 100,000 residents.

Under the new rules, a county’s overall tier designation doesn’t matter. The one metric being used is per capita cases.

San Diego County is currently at 22.2 cases per 100,000 residents, according to county data.

In the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section, all counties are currently over 14 cases per 100,000, with Orange County at 16, Los Angeles County at 17.6, San Bernardino County at 19 and Riverside County at 28.

“It really all depends on what numbers you’re looking at,” said Brad Hensley of the Let Them Play CA movement. “Either way, we’re over the number, but cases have been going down by five to 10 per week, so there is some optimism here. This isn’t perfect, but nobody expected it would be.”

In his news conference, Newsom said high schools would be required to test football, water polo and rugby athletes weekly for the coronavirus, adding that the state would supply and pay for the testing. The San Diego Section moved water polo to the spring this year, while other state sections will start their seasons later this month.

CIF San Diego Section Commissioner Joe Heinz said he hopes San Diego County is under 14 cases per 100,000 by next week, which would render the temporary restraining order moot.

The new guidance seemed aimed largely to get football on the field before schools run out of time to complete a shortened season. Newsom said he would address adjusted guidance for indoor sports such as basketball at a later date.

Heinz spent the day on calls with conference presidents and will meet with the county’s football coaches to decide a path to play.

San Diego had been hoping to begin football practice by March 1, with games beginning as early as March 12. That would leave time for a five- or six-game season.

Heinz said it’s up to the coaches whether they’d like a six-game season or five games and a scrimmage.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond credited “pressure” from parents, coaches and athletes for changing Newsom’s stance. Marlon Gardinera believes the court case pushed the governor to make an announcement.

“Your voices were heard. The push, the effort and the rallies were finally heard by Gov. Newsom, and he reacted,” Desmond said. “We still need to get more sports open and more competitions opened, but it has worked.”

CIF Executive Director Ron Nocetti said he would allow the football season to go to May 1. It originally was thought football must conclude by April 17 to allow for the regulation 90 days between this season and the 2021 fall season.

— City News Service contributed to this report.