Recreational hockey and basketball leagues that have been hosting competitions throughout the fall will have to shut down until December. Credit: Stock image / Pexels

Recreational hockey and basketball leagues that have been hosting competitions throughout the fall will have to shut down until December, state officials said Friday as they converted guidelines recommending limited athletic competition into firm requirements.

Once competition gets into gear, participating athletes will have to wear face coverings while competing, under Gov. Janet Mills’ expanded face covering order released Thursday that requires Mainers to wear masks in all public settings, regardless of whether they can keep a safe distance from others.

Recreational hockey and basketball competitions not affiliated with schools have taken place throughout the summer and fall even as state guidelines recommended against indoor play among different teams. Ongoing hockey competitions came to light in early October, when a hockey referee tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing 400 people to the virus at three ice rinks in southern Maine and New Hampshire.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew later warned the Maine Amateur Hockey Association to follow state guidelines governing higher-risk sports such as hockey and basketball, which are played indoors and in which players come into close contact. If they didn’t, the state would “harden what had been strong recommendations into stringent requirements,” Lambrew wrote in a letter first reported by the Portland Press Herald.

Travel basketball leagues have also been holding competitions, with teams traveling to different parts of the state in some cases to face competing squads, while state guidelines recommended only intra-team play. Earlier this week, the state announced a virus outbreak of five cases linked to kids playing basketball at the Midcoast Athletics Center in Warren, and Lambrew noted that many cases of COVID-19 that have occurred in schools have been among student-athletes.

The new requirements come as virus cases are spiking throughout the state.

Under those requirements, team practices and intra-team scrimmages in sports the state calls “moderate risk,” such as hockey, basketball, soccer and swimming can’t happen until Dec. 14. Competition among teams within the same geographic area — generally within the same county — can’t resume until Jan. 11, 2021.

“We believe that it is not safe right now to be having moderate risk sport activities continuing,” Lambrew said Friday.

The Maine Principals’ Association, which governs school-affiliated sports, outlined its framework for the winter sports season on Friday, which will follow a similar timeline as the new community sports requirements.

Sports and athletic activities considered to be of lower risk, such as disc golf, batting cages, individual swimming, biking, tennis and skiing, can continue under the new requirements. Those activities are considered to be lower-risk because they involve less personal contact.