- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

American sports leagues struggling with how to restart after the coronavirus crisis might find some pointers in the return to neighborhood parks and fields of youth soccer and Little League.

Medical and sports authorities say the kids’ leagues are likely to return before the pros because community-based sports are better suited to improvise, incorporate new rules and adjust to the necessary rules regarding social distancing.

“Youth sports are inherently more adaptable,” said Lauren Sauer, director of operations with the Johns Hopkins office of critical event preparedness and response.

She told participants in an online panel discussion of youth sports this week that neighborhood leagues have advantages the big leagues lack.

“They can have regionality to where they can be conducted and how they can quickly pause and restart activities,” she said.

It’s one reason the timetable for the return of youth sports is much shorter than for the NHL, the MLB or the NBA.

Maryland, Virginia and D.C. youth leagues remain sidelined, but West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday that the “low contact” sports of baseball, softball and soccer can resume June 8.

Last weekend, a baseball tournament in Cottleville, Missouri, drew about 50 teams of players ages 7 to 14. They included some from Illinois who traveled for hours to compete in violation of their state’s stay-at-home order.

The Missouri tournament generated sharp criticism for participants and its organizer, GameTime Tournaments, despite the introduction of special social distancing guidelines for players, coaches and spectators. Umpires had to call the games while standing at least 6 feet behind the catchers. Only three players at a time on each side could sit in the dugout. High-fives were banned, and no fist bumps were allowed.

Critics said those efforts weren’t enough to justify the risks. The St. Louis Dispatch reported that players and coaches occasionally broke the rules by huddling in dugouts or getting too close to the bases.

Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Atlanta’s Emory University, said in an interview with Time that the decision to go forward with the annual Missouri youth baseball tournament was “unconscionable.”

Lots of parents apparently agreed that it was too soon for players to get back on the field. Participation was off dramatically for an event that usually draws as many as 180 teams.

During an Aspen Institute online forum this week, Ms. Sauer said youth sports have to be reintroduced in phases. She said the process shouldn’t begin until states see downward trends in COVID-19 cases.

“We have to consider that context nationally but also regionally as we [look at] the number of cases before we think about reopening youth sports and other activities,” said Ms. Sauer, who has worked for more than 16 years in the field of outbreak response.

Jill Daugherty, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is on the COVID-19 response task force, said at the forum Wednesday that youth sports will need to consider new safety protocols such as daily temperature checks for officials, coaches, staffs and players. She also recommended sanitizing equipment, educating staff and requiring face masks for coaches and spectators.

“The more people a child interacts with and the longer that interaction, the higher risk that COVID-19 spreads,” Ms. Daugherty said. “However, if a youth sports league and local jurisdiction determine they can safely return their children to sports, there are a number of actions they can take to lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread during competition and practice.”

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