Erie County schools still can't wrestle

In this Feb. 15, 2020, file photo, Grand Island's Brian Bielec wrestles Clarence's Jack Feltz in the 160-pound weight class of the Section VI Division I state qualifier at Starpoint High School. 

As the spring wrestling season approaches, Section VI's largest county is still being withheld.

The section's executive committee released a statement Wednesday that the Erie County Department of Health has not moved on its stance in recommending "to postpone or cancel wrestling activities" for the 2021 spring season. This statement also reiterates that Section VI's four other counties — Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Orleans — have all OK'd the start of the adjusted wrestling schedule, slated for May 3.

According to WIVB, Erie County's stance here is predicated on "high levels of community transmission and that wrestlers won't be able to wear a mask while competing."

“The expectations are clear from our school leaders. Our school districts cannot take on the liability associated with splitting off from the ECDOH’s recommendation" said Section VI president Brett Banker in the statement.

"As we have done since the start of this public health crisis, we will continue to rely upon the expertise, knowledge and recommendations from local and state authorities when making decisions impacting the safety of our student-athletes. ... Section VI has proven that we are committed to providing opportunities for our athletes within the guidelines set forth to us by the local health departments. We will support the Erie County schools to begin wrestling immediately, if the recommendation from Erie County changes. We look forward to engaging in that dialogue.”

Banker added that outside of the cancellation of the indoor track and field season — which was more of a venues issue than fear of COVID-19 transmission — no other sports seasons in Western New York have been nixed this school year. This memo also notes that the section will continue working with the ECDOH on this matter.

Although it has recommended against wrestling in Erie County, the ECDOH has not outright prohibited it for programs. This could put respective departments in a unique position, as athletic directors could have the final say on if their wrestlers will have the green light.

This has been a topic of discussion as of late, with roughly 50 Section VI schools residing in Erie County, including Grand Island. The Vikings have put together a reputable wrestling program under Craig Hoplight, with Adam Daghestani, Jack Randle and the Bielec brothers, Blake and Brian, all competing in the 2020 NYSPHSAA tournament.

This announcement leaves wrestlers, coaches and fans alike in a precarious spot. On one hand, there has been an outcry from the wrestling community, seeing as areas as close as Rochester's Section V and Syracuse's Section III have either finished full seasons or are in line to do so. Both sections put mask mandates in place for its athletes, added sanitizing measures and limits on tournament-style events.

But it can also be said that WNY may not be handling the spread of the coronavirus well enough to conduct a high-risk sport like wrestling. Just as recently as April 17, WNY's seven-day rolling average of COVID cases was up to 646. By comparison, it was as low as 273 on March 12.

The trials and errors of football in the fall sports II season could also be factored here. Football, also considered a high-risk sport, has been uneven in its return following a fall sans any games. The season is in its fourth week of gameplay, but there have been daily schedule updates due to COVID pauses.

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