Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and County Executive Mark Poloncarz defended the county's recommendation that high school wrestling be delayed until Covid-19 infection rates have fallen further.
Burstein said Tuesday that wrestling is still a "very high-risk" sport with unmasked athletes close together. She and County Executive Mark Poloncarz also said that wrestling can't be compared with other counties where wrestling has been allowed to take place because Erie County's positive test rate is still much higher than other counties, with confirmed cases still exceeding 100 cases per 100,000 residents.
"The expectations are clear from our school leaders. Our school leaders cannot take on the liability associated with splitting off from the ECDOH's recommendations," Section VI president Brett Banker said.
Wrestling practice began Monday for Section VI schools in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Niagara and Orleans counties.
"So our recommendation in that circumstance is that they defer the season to later in the year," Burstein said.
She noted that confirmed case numbers have been falling, so there's reason to hope that high school wrestling will eventually be able to resume with the Erie County Health Department's blessing. Section VI has said it is ready to open the wrestling season in Erie County "if the recommendation from the county changes."
What frustrates wrestlers, their coaches and families is that they don't understand how their sport could be considered more risky than football, basketball and ice hockey.
"We'll be in a lower-risk transmission category, and then we will definitely reassess," she said.
In regard to criticism that Burstein and other county officials have refused to meet with Section VI officials, Poloncarz said Section VI is only one of many organizations that has asked to sit down with the health commissioner and others to make their case.
"You cannot compare an area that is having a low risk of transmission with an area like ours with a high risk of transmission," he said. "You talk to organizations and groups about that and they don't like to hear that. They don't want to hear that the numbers are bad."
Gary Abbott, longtime director of communications and special projects for USA Wrestling, the sport’s national governing body, chimes in on whether high school wrestling should take place.
Erie County had given its approval in January for high-risk sports basketball, football and ice hockey. However, on Jan. 28, the Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara county health departments advised against holding a wrestling season at that point. Section VI responded by moving wrestling to the spring.
When Section VI sought recommendations from the county health departments in late April, Erie County cited "high levels of community transmission and the inability of competing wrestlers to wear a mask."
But like Burstein, Poloncarz pointed out that the number of cases has been falling and that the county is closer to being in a lower transmission category than a week or two ago.
"It's in the people's hands," he said. "We keep the Covid-19 cases down, they'll we'll be able to open up more and do it in a way that's safer to others."