SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- State health officials greenlighted the resumption of select high school sports programs, setting a benchmark of fewer than 14 cases of COVID-19 for every 100,000 residents for counties to return to play.
At a morning news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom said several Bay Area counties have already reached that standard.
"We currently have 19 counties that are in that category including Alameda County, Marin, San Francisco, many of the Bay Area counties are already well below 14 cases for 100,000 so they are able to move as early as Feb 26," the governor said. "This is for outdoor sports including contact sports. Including football, rugby and water polo."
Sports can go forward for all Bay Area counties except Solano and Contra Costa, since their COVID infection rates are higher. But health officials said their case numbers are trending downward and those two counties are expected to allow outdoor sports within two weeks.
The announcement comes after weeks of demonstrations by parents and students across the state are part of the "Let's Then Play" movement.
Newsom was joined by 49ers stars Arik Armstead, who grew up in Sacramento, and backup quarterback Josh Johnson, who grew up in Oakland.
"I grew up in the area playing football and basketball and know the impact it had on my life," Armstead said. "I know the impact youth sports has on the rest of society...Also being a husband and father to a child, I can see the mental health issues that the pandemic has caused on our youth. I'm a big advocate for getting youth sports back."
"Today is a tremendous first step in the right direction," Johnson added. "Sports outside of my faith and my family is pretty much everything...Sports has been my gateway out of the struggles in Oakland. Without it, I don't know where I would be in life today...Life is different when you wake up every day without a workout."
With cases on a steady decline, it may not be long before football, soccer, rugby, water polo, baseball, cheerleading and softball can resume all over the Bay Area.
Some low-contact like cross country, have already begun.
"Youth sports are important to our children's physical and mental health," said State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón in a news release. "With case rates and hospitalizations declining across California, we are allowing outdoor competition to resume, with modifications and steps to reduce risk, in counties where case rates are lower."
Health officials said that in counties with case rates between 7 and 14 per 100,000, people over age 13 will be required to get tested every week to play or coach football, rugby and water polo. Test results must be available within 24 hours of competitions, under the new guidelines.
Other sports considered lower contact, including baseball, cheerleading and softball, will not have a testing requirement.
Let Them Play CA, a group of youth sports coaches and student athletes across the state that have advocated for sports to resume, lauded Newsom and state legislators for lifting the ban on outdoor sports.
"From the moment the governor called us to say he would work with us to help get sports back for kids, it has been a methodical march to get to this wonderful place," Let Them Play CA said in a joint statement with the Golden State High School Football Coaches Community.
"It has not been easy; there were many bumps along the way, but good people kept working together to create a positive outcome for our most 'essential business'- our kids."
KPIX 5 found a group of Richmond High School student athletes who went to the football field to work out and do conditioning on their own on Friday afternoon. They wanted to get ready for their season.
"I'm excited. I love to go, go, go. All gas," said Nathan Davis, who plays on Richmond High's varsity football team. "It's my senior year, you know, it's my last year. I didn't think I was going to play. And it just kind of hurt deep down," said Davis.
Richmond High varsity football head coach George Jackson Jr. said youth sports provide structure and mentors. He said it was good for the players' physical and mental health.
"I witnessed one of my players had a gun to his head a couple of weeks ago on social media," said Jackson. We're currently looking for one of my former players right now who's been missing. And that hurts."
"Today is one of the first days in a very, very long time that millions, think about that, millions of kids across the State of California can smile and look forward to something," said Justin Alumbaugh, a teacher and varsity football head coach at De La Salle High School.
Alumbaugh and Junipero Serra High School varsity football coach Patrick Walsh said during a Zoom press conference they can now salvage their season. Teams plan to try to play five to eight games between March and April.
Davis said he's been ready.
"This season, I want to get college looks. I want to try to go somewhere with this and I want my team to go somewhere," said Davis.
Da Lin contributed to this report.
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