In this July 2019 photo, youngsters from Aroostook County participated in a Maine Red Claws Youth Basketball Clinic in Houlton. Youth basketball programs in other Maine communities continue to operate this fall amid the state's community sports guidelines. Credit: Joseph Cyr

While Maine’s youth ice hockey community has come under scrutiny after a referee who officiated eight games during a recent weekend subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, youth fall basketball programs are quietly winding down around the state.

Some efforts have been scaled back or halted due to the coronavirus or related issues such as reduced access to gymnasiums.

The Old Town-based Maine Sting basketball program, for example, has played a limited number of scrimmages this fall, mostly in the Bangor area.

“They’re few and far between just because we’re trying to be so cautious,” program director Adam Mahaney said.

Basketball is considered a “moderate-risk” sport according to the state’s community sports guidelines, with the accompanying recommendation as part of Level 3 limiting indoor play to intrasquad competition.

Other programs have sought to meet recommendations that also include using face coverings, social distancing, sanitizing efforts and adhering to the current gathering limit of 50.

“Maine CDC is aware of cases among participants in youth sports, including cases among hockey players, but has not opened any outbreaks specific to games or tournaments,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services communications director Jackie Farwell said.

Two of the state’s larger basketball clubs, Black Bear North in central Maine and Maine Hoops in southern Maine, have conducted indoor, in-house basketball programs this fall.

“I know they allow intrasquad play, and I consider all the kids playing with Black Bear North intrasquad because they’re all part of the organization,” league founder Fritz Marseille said. “It’s a recommendation and we just follow it and do exactly what’s written.

“People have been very aware of what’s going on and are following all the guidelines because they appreciate the chance for kids to go out and play and exercise.”

Maine Hoops owner Lenny Holmes said he divided participants in his fall program into three-team cohorts, with games matching teams within each cohort.

“They come, play a couple of games and leave and then the next cohorts come in to play,” Holmes told the Portland Press Herald.

Black Bear North’s efforts to follow the state’s general guidance within the community sports guidelines have included getting contact information from each participant in case contact tracing is ever required. It also asks spectators to bring their own seating.

“We ran the league this summer and kept everything to 50 people that can enter the building,” Marseille said.

“Everyone had to wear masks, everybody got their temperature taken before they walked into the building and they practiced social distancing,” he added, saying the same procedures have been in effect this fall.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said its philosophy on enforcing the state guidance has been to first encourage voluntary compliance.

But the case of the hockey referee who tested positive after officiating games in Maine and New Hampshire provided a cautionary tale. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as many as 400 people could have been exposed to the coronavirus during those games.

Lambrew said during Thursday’s Maine CDC press conference there is no evidence yet of COVID-19 spreading from that incident, but her earlier threat of taking punitive action — penalties could include up to a $10,000 fine and restitution to the state — against the Maine Amateur Hockey Association looms as an indication that DHHS is willing to enforce its guidance more aggressively when the public’s health is threatened.

The MAHA has announced plans to begin holding on-ice events again this weekend.

“Commissioner Lambrew has stated that if non-compliance persists and spread of COVID-19 through community sports appears to be occurring, we will change what had been recommendations into requirements and will take all reasonable and practicable action to enforce them to protect the health and safety of Maine people,” Farwell said.

Lambrew said work is under way to update the community sports guidance and Maine Principals’ Association guidelines for the upcoming high school winter sports season. That is being aided by information gained since the pandemic’s arrival about how the coronavirus has been handled in different sports and in different parts of the country.

“All of that will go into our process to figure out when we look toward winter when sports are mostly inside, what changes are needed to the guidance,” Lambrew said.

“We are doing this in a careful process. We do recognize that most winter sports begin around mid-November so we anticipate coming out with that joint guidance hopefully soon.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...