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A collection of more than 60 high school athletes, coaches and their families from across the state gathered Thursday outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to protest its decision to postpone winter and spring prep sports.

Two police vehicles blocked traffic to allow for players carrying handwritten signs — with messages like SPORTS = MENTAL HEALTH and No reason for no season! — to cross the street toward CDPHE’s Denver offices on South Cherry Creek Drive. They rang cowbells and chanted a familiar mantra for all Colorado high school athletes frustrated by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

“Let us play! Let us play!”

Their collective goal: Increase public pressure on CHSAA, state government and local health authorities to begin sports for Season B — including basketball, ice hockey, skiing, wrestling, and girls swimming and diving — as previously scheduled on Jan. 4 instead of in early February.

“It’s not fair and it’s not right,” said Malik Carlson, a junior point guard for the Class 1A Briggsdale boys basketball team. “We just want to go out and play. We had a successful football season and made it to state. They got to finish it out. I don’t know why they can’t do it for basketball. I just want to play.”

Representatives of several small-school programs such as Rocky Ford swimming (2A) and Bennett wrestling (1A) made the long drive to Denver. Darren Pitzner, head girls basketball coach at Green Mountain (3A), helped organize the protest with to give athletes, coaches and parents a voice in the ongoing debate over the safety of indoor sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There are currently 22 states that have already started high school basketball seasons, according to Colorado is one of only five that does not plan to tip off until February or later.

“Sports are clearly an answer here and not the problem,” Pitzner said. “The spread with kids is occurring at parties and social gatherings outside of our walls. The more structure we can provide for them, the safer we can keep our families, our communities and our kids. There are thousands of public servants and coaches in this state who are ready and willing to provide safe opportunities for kids under the right protocols.

“We can curb the spread by saying yes to kids right now. Let them have their passions so our kids can become kids again. They’ll actually socialize less outside of our protocols and safety that we can provide.”

Last week, CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker, in a statement via CHSAA, said the decision to postpone winter and spring prep sports was based on a lack of “information about what disease incidence and hospitalization capacity will look like in January” with counties in red on the COVID-19 dial prohibited from “indoor group sports.” Gov. Jared Polis also suggested the state suspend all high school extracurricular activities until in-person learning is available at all grade levels.

Pitzner’s rebuttal pointed to a study published in October by the University of Wisconsin school of medicine which surveyed 207 high schools to represent about 30,000 fall sport student-athletes. It found that among 209 who reported positive tests, only one player indicated it was because of sports participation.

Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, said there is no perfect answer for how communities should approach winter youth sports, especially indoors, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Once you get inside, you’re sharing that same air space, and the risk is going to go up. There are things you can do to lessen the risk, but I don’t think you can get around it unless you have tens-of-millions of dollars and can afford the rigorous protocols that professional sports teams have used to safely do indoor sports,” Miller said, adding that high school teams can reduce risk by maximizing gym ventilation. “Every public health policy has consequences. Hopefully, they lessen infection risk, but they also interfere with people’s lives — economic, social, and emotional. All of these decisions are really tough balancing acts.”

Protesters are hopeful their message will prompt local health authorities to act quickly, open gymnasiums, and allow winter prep sports to start next month. State officials are not expected to meet until mid-January to resume talks over Season B, according to CHSAA.

Pitzner, turning to the crowd of protesters on Thursday, said: “Let’s make sure they hear us.”

This content was originally published here.