Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, numbers for high school sports officials in Illinois were on the decline. Particularly in basketball.

For whatever reason in recent years, fewer new officials have been joining the fraternity. And as older officials have retired, the pool has been stretched even thinner.

Then COVID-19 happened.

And as sports such as basketball finally resumed last month after nearly a year of pause, the pool of officials is being stressed again.

A significant number of basketball officials in Illinois have opted out.

Jeff Schwarz, a longtime official and an assignor for three major conferences in the suburbs, says that many officials had health concerns about reffing during a pandemic.

"We are down about 40 percent," said Schwarz, a 65-year-old native of Arlington Heights who has been reffing basketball games since he was 21 years old. Schwarz also assigns officials for the Central Suburban League, the Metro Suburban and the North Suburban Conference.

"This has definitely been a challenge."

A migraine headache even.

Shortages, stress main concerns

Finding enough officials to staff the onslaught of boys and girls games that are happening throughout the suburbs -- sometimes seven days a week -- in this condensed season, has been taxing to say the least.

When games are canceled and rescheduled, that just adds to the stress.

"I had a game to fill today so I looked (in the database of officials) and I saw that there was a really good official, I mean this guy has state final experience, who was free so I called him up and I said, 'Are you really free today?'" Schwarz said. "And he said, 'Yep, I just had my game today canceled an hour ago.' So he lost a game at 9 a.m., and by 10 he had a new game. That's how quickly things happen now.

"The people who are working this season, they are at a premium. And they are doing yeoman's work."

In fact, some officials have had to referee both an underlevel game and a varsity game on the same night, usually unheard of in a normal season. Others have reffed a game at one site and another game at a nearby site a couple hours later. Doing double duty in one day used to happen only on Saturdays in the old days. Now, that's every week night.

Also, officials are occasionally working games on Sundays, too, which means that some are reffing games seven days a week. And this is their side gig.

They're not getting rich

Most officials in the suburbs make about $70 for a varsity game, and none are reimbursed for their travel expenses.

"Most officials aren't doing it for the money. I mean, it's good pocket money but if you do a full varsity schedule, you're traveling a lot," said longtime official Troy Whalen.

Whalen, 52, lives in Grayslake but has been sent all over the northern part of the state so far this season.

"I wish I could work every night in the North Suburban Conference right by me, but I've been to Genoa and Batavia and Wheaton North and Huntley and Rockford already," Whalen said. "That's probably one of the reasons the overall numbers for officials is down.

"With travel and AAU and feeder basketball, an official can go to one location and ref a bunch of games in one day. You may not make as much money per game as you would for a varsity game, but you can get a lot of games in and there's a running clock and you cut down your travel. Our numbers have probably dropped because of that.

"And now, with the pandemic, it's harder. There are way more games than officials."

Schwarz says that there have been three waves of opt-outs for basketball officials in Illinois. The first wave came when the basketball season was supposed to start, back in the late fall.

"There were people who just knew right away that they wouldn't be able to do it," Schwarz said. "Maybe they have older parents living with them. Maybe their wives are pregnant. Maybe they are in a high-risk group themselves. And you can't blame them. Obviously, someone's health or a loved one's health is paramount to a basketball game."

Even more officials opted out when the IHSA announced in January that basketball was back on.

And, they have to wear masks

Then came the mask situation.

At first, officials were not going to be required to wear masks.

That changed just days before the season started.

And that was not appealing to many officials. Especially the older ones. The average age of officials in the area is about 55 years old. A significant segment is much older than that and well into their retirement years.

"A couple days before the season started, the IHSA published another set of guidelines saying that officials would be required to wear masks," Schwarz said. "I think there was some public pressure and pressure from school boards. But that caused another group of officials to drop out."

Whalen, who loves officiating and has been rewarded with state finals games, almost considering opting out himself when word came that officials would be required to wear masks.

He has asthma, and he's carrying his inhaler in his pocket this season while he refs games.

"If I had known about the mask situation before I got assigned all my games, I would have opted out, because of my asthma," Whalen said. "Probably a lot of officials who are still doing games would have. There are people officiating that probably shouldn't be officiating when we're not in a pandemic. Now, you slap a mask on them. That's rough.

"I mean, I'm in my 50s and I have asthma. I probably shouldn't be reffing this year. But I knew there aren't enough refs out there. And I had already committed to my games. The mask has taken some getting used to. I've tried four or five different ones and you just learn to tolerate it."

Whalen says he can truly empathize with the players, many of whom have struggled to catch their breath while running up and down the floor with their masks. Others have struggled keeping their masks correctly on their faces.

"In the three weeks I've been working games, I haven't told one single kid to fix their mask ... because it's not my job," Whalen said. "If I see a kid intentionally violating the mask policy, then I'll say something. But if a kid takes the mask down for a minute at the free-throw line to catch his breath, or if his mask drops below his nose for a few seconds when he's driving, I'm not going to say anything. I mean, it happens. Everyone is just trying their best."

And most everyone is just trying their best to have fun. Even the officials.

"Everyone I've heard from is just thrilled to be back on the court again," Schwarz said of his colleagues. "Even though it's strange with no fans or cheerleaders or bands, it's still fun being out there. And I think many of the coaches and players really appreciate us being out there to help them have a season."