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Student basketball players will have to don masks during their games this weekend

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Olivia Ebertz
/
KYUK
Some council members said that amid the region’s largest COVID-19 outbreak ever, it’s the wrong time to consider allowing players to remove their masks for games.

Bethel Basketball players will have to wear masks during their home games on Jan. 21 and 22. The Bethel City Council voted against a proposal that would have allowed them to take their masks off while playing. The motion failed, 5-2. The vote came during the region’s largest ever surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Bethel City Council met at the request of the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD). On Jan. 17, the school board unanimously voted to ask the council to exempt student athletes from the city’s mask mandate.

Most parents and community members who called in to the Jan. 20 Bethel City Council meeting supported the exemption. Despite this, the Bethel City Council voted to strike down the proposal. Student basketball players will have to continue wearing their masks during this weekend’s games. The council is set to consider a similar, but more permanent, exemption for student athletes at its regular meeting next week.

Parents and family members of players gave several reasons for wanting players to be able to shed their masks. Community member Ana Hoffman said that traveling teams have pulled out of Bethel games, in part because of the mask mandate.

“This is devastating for the kids, who have been adhering to layers upon layers of conditions and precautions,” said Hoffman.

Many parents said that LKSD’s testing protocol should be enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at games. According to an email sent to the city from LKSD Assistant Superintendent Ed Pekar, local athletes must test just before games, and traveling athletes need to test 24 hours before coming to Bethel. Meghan Crow, mother to senior captain Peter Crow, supported players removing their masks. She said that LKSD should be able to set its own policies.

“I'm also speaking here to attest to the very diligent mitigation strategies that [Bethel Regional High School] has been putting in place this season,” said Crow.

That includes limiting spectators at the basketball games and only allowing vaccinated fans to attend. LKSD did recently increase the number of spectators in the gym, upping it from two to four spectators per player and no more than 160 attendees in total.

Some parents argued that players shouldn’t have to wear masks at the game because they already have to be vaccinated. That isn’t true. Bethel players only have to be vaccinated in order to travel out of the region to play ball. Principal Alicia Miner estimated that there are five unvaccinated Bethel Regional High School (BRHS) students who will be playing in the games this weekend.

One grandparent, Ivy Riley, said that this mitigation strategy won’t keep COVID-19 at bay.

“COVID-19 is here to stay; let's keep moving forward,” said Riley.

Though parents and family members were generally in favor of allowing kids to shed their masks during games, the health care professionals who called into the meeting were against it.

“We have seen basketball games and tournaments lead to enormous outbreaks, literally hundreds of cases and people exposed,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, the chief of staff at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC).

Hodges pled with the council to keep the mask mandate for students.

“If we start limiting mitigation strategies, we will have an increase in cases even higher than we have now. Eventually the very young, or vulnerable, or just plain unlucky are going to get very sick and we will overwhelm our health care system,” said Hodges.

Hodges also said that she understands that it can be annoying to wear a mask while working out, but that it’s not dangerous.

Council members discussed the temporary exemption for players, but ultimately voted against it, 5-2. Council members Perry Barr and Mary “Beth” Hessler were the only two to vote in favor of it.

Some council members said that amid the region’s largest COVID-19 outbreak ever, it’s the wrong time to consider allowing players to remove their masks for games. But council member Michelle DeWitt said that she would be happy to consider this exemption in the future.

“I would feel more comfortable considering this resolution at a time where our numbers are on the decline,” said DeWitt.

Some council members who voted against the exemption also cited concern over a COVID-19 outbreak that followed a recent basketball tournament. Two weekends ago, Scammon Bay held a tournament. The week before the tournament, the village had just three new cases of COVID-19 in town. The week after, the new case counts in the village jumped to 94. Hooper Bay fans traveled to the tournament too. Cases in Hooper Bay jumped from 14 the week prior to 132 new cases after the tournament.

In an email response to KYUK, YKHC said that it could not provide details on outbreaks in communities without written permission from the local Tribe or government. However, a representative of the organization did share that “contact tracing indicates that between January 1-15, more than 100 people tested COVID-positive after attendance at, participation in, or close contact resulting from high school basketball games, tournaments, and practices. This represents nearly 15% of cases with source data available during this period, is likely an undercount of actual cases, and does not reflect secondary cases resulting from those cases."

The Bethel City Council is set to take up this issue again in its regular meeting on Jan. 25. Next time, it will consider whether to permanently exempt student athletes from wearing masks during games, not just for the weekend.

You can tune into KYUK 640 AM to stream this weekend's varsity games.

Schedule:

Friday - Jan. 21, 2022

10:00 a.m. G.J.E./Ayaprun 5/6 Grades Girls Scrimmage

11:00 a.m. G.J.E./Ayaprun 4th Grade Girls Scrimmage

12:00 p.m. G.J.E./Ayaprun 5/6 Grades Boys Scrimmage

1:00 p.m. Jr. High Blue/Gold Girls Scrimmage

2:00 p.m. Bethel Jr. High Boys vs. Bethel JV C Team Boys

3:00 p.m. Bethel JV Girls vs. Aniak Girls

4:30 p.m. Bethel JV Boys vs. Aniak Boys

6:00 p.m. Bethel Girls vs. Kodiak Girls

7:30 p.m. Bethel Boys vs. Kodiak Boys

Saturday - Jan. 22, 2022

10:30 a.m. Bethel JV Boys vs. Aniak Boys

12:00 p.m. Bethel JV Girls vs. Aniak Girls

1:30 p.m. Bethel Jr. High Boys vs. G.J.E./Ayaprun Boys

2:30 p.m. Bethel Jr. High Girls vs. G.J.E./Ayaprun Girls

3:30 p.m. Bethel JV Blue/Gold Scrimmage Boys

4:30 p.m. G.J.E./Ayaprun 5/6 Grades Girls Scrimmage

6:00 p.m. Bethel Boys vs. Kodiak Boys

7:30 p.m. Bethel Girls vs. Kodiak Girls

KYUK's Anna Rose MacArthur contributed additional reporting.

Olivia Ebertz is a News Reporter for KYUK. She also works as a documentary filmmaker. She enjoys learning languages, making carbs, and watching movies.
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