The calls and emails flowed into Jon Snyder’s inbox at Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, and there were times when he felt like a circus juggler trying to weigh the benefits of return-to-play options for youth sports leagues against the risks of doing so in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Snyder oversees outdoor recreation as a senior policy adviser to the governor, and when most of the state was still shut down because of COVID-19 in late spring and early summer, he says he regularly got messages from frustrated parents: “My kid needs to play baseball!” they would tell him.
The next message in his inbox would often represent another point of contention: “Hey, why are there kids practicing baseball in the park across my street? They shouldn’t be doing it! It’s not safe!”
“We hear both sides of it,” Snyder said. “It’s a really tricky balance, because we know how important these activities are for both kids and adults for their physical, mental and emotional health. We also know how important not getting sick is.”
Under Inslee’s Safe Start plan, youth sports teams operating in counties designated as Phase 2 were allowed to resume practices in June; teams in Phase 3 counties could resume competitions and games, albeit with limitations on crowd sizes.
In July, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association independently decided to postpone most high school sports until 2021, and Puget Sound-area Pop Warner youth football leagues have canceled or postponed their fall seasons. Under state guidelines, youth sports programs that have resumed practices this summer were tasked with creating a return-to-play safety plan for their teams.
There is cautious optimism among some local teams — and among King County soccer clubs in particular — that they will be able to move toward more competitive gamelike activities this fall. Those club officials point to the Puget Sound region’s overall decline in reported cases of COVID-19 in late August and the effectiveness of their clubs’ return-to-play safety plans that have largely shielded their teams from the novel coronavirus.
Some teams never stopped playing in the first place.
The Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak, an American Legion baseball club based in Selah, played 51 games in June and July, 41 of them at their home field, with teams traveling in from throughout the state — and from Idaho and Oregon — all while Yakima County became a hot spot for COVID-19, with more reported cases per capita than any other county in the state.
Longtime Pepsi Pak coach Mike Archer defended the decision to play this summer. The team’s 17-, 18- and 19-year-old ballplayers all wanted to play, he said, and their parents supported that “100 percent.” What’s more, he said, Selah Mayor Sherry Raymond — who openly proclaimed in the spring that the city wouldn’t enforce Inslee’s stay-home order — encouraged the Pepsi Pak to play.
Between Archer’s team and Yakima’s junior-legion team, they hosted three tournaments in Selah and some 75 home games in all, with parents and fans in attendance at all of them. Pepsi Pak also traveled to tournaments in Montana and Oregon, with 20 players and four coaches cramming into a 25-seat bus for both trips. They shared large meals and hotel rooms, three players per room.
In their two months together, Archer said he was not aware of any cases of COVID-19 among players, coaches, parents or fans.
“We had no issues,” he insisted.
Baseball, he said, is a naturally social distancing sport, and when they first began playing in June, coaches extended the dugouts, so players would not huddle in large groups. Enforcing those social distancing measures, he admitted, was lax.
After Pepsi Pak’s season became local news — “GAMES OF DEFIANCE,” was the Yakima Herald-Republic headline — county health officials did attempt to shut the team down. But those efforts hit a dead end within the city of Selah, which manages Pepsi Pak’s field and kept it open. The area’s other Legion team, the Yakima Beetles, did not have access to its home field, located on the Yakima Valley College campus, but it did travel to play in four tournaments in Montana, according to the Herald-Republic.
There was some initial backlash toward Pepsi Pak’s decision to play — most of it coming on social media — but Archer said no one directly questioned or criticized him during their summer season.
“We had a really good experience,” Archer said. “For our players, they lost their spring [high school] season, and they really appreciated being out on the ball field together again. I think they relished that.”
In King County, youth soccer practices began to resume in earnest for many clubs in July. On a typical weekday evening since then, teams from Seattle United and Seattle Celtic could be found spread out across seven fields for practices at Magnuson Park.
As part of Seattle United’s safety plan, coaches are required to wear masks at all times on the field. Players are required to wear masks when they arrive and when they leave (and some opt to wear them while practicing). Each player is assigned to a group with three or four other players, and each group placed in a coned-off quadrant off the field, safely away from teammates in another group in another part of the field. Players are not allowed to touch a teammates’ soccer ball, and players are asked to stand at least 6 feet away during water breaks.
“I have to say it’s gone way better than I anticipated,” said Seattle United coach Dan Pingrey, 59, a longtime coach at the college, high-school and youth ranks. “I really didn’t know how this was going to work. And having done this for many, many years, I’ve had to run sessions a lot different than the past. But you just have to adjust, and the kids have been great.”
For contract-tracing purposes, parents of Seattle United players who aren’t able to attend a particular practice are required by the club to give a reason for their absence. If a player is absent and a no reason is provided, the club follows up directly with the parents.
Seattle United has 1,930 players in its boys and girls programs this summer. In two months of training, the club says two players have tested positive for COVID-19, and in both cases the club says those players contracted the virus in the community (the first player contracted it before Seattle United practices began in July). Other players who practiced in small groups with the other infected player were tested, and those results were negative, said Dr. Jon Drezner, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Sports Cardiology.
Drezner has two children who play for Seattle United, and he worked closely with the club and Snyder in the governor’s office to formulate the state’s return-to-play guidelines.
“I can tell you with certainty that small-group training in youth soccer — when it’s physically distanced and when everyone is following the safety and hygiene protocols — is safe,” Drezner said. “We haven’t had any transmission from player to player or coach to player. … I think Seattle United has been a model youth program and has really been a leader in the community because of that.”
So far, most local soccer clubs are practicing only in their small-group pods; summer tournaments and games have been postponed or canceled. As fall approaches and as confirmed cases in the Puget Sound region seem to be slowly declining, club officials hope King County can move into Phase 3 in the near future, which could mean a return of scrimmages and games.
Snyder said he expects the governor’s office to get an added push from communities — and parents, in particular — to allow more larger-group activity in youth sports outdoors. That could be especially true with many school districts now starting the school year with remote learning, and as part of that there is uncertainty with how effective physical education classes can be when kids are asked to exercise remotely.
“I think we’re going to get more pressure to allow kids to do more as fall goes on,” Snyder said. “We can’t underestimate how disruptive it is for them compared to us adults. It’s our present, but it’s their future.”
If and when a bump to Phase 3 happens, Drezner said he would be generally comfortable endorsing larger group activity for low- to moderate-risk outdoor sports, such as soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse. (He deemed football as high risk, with indoor sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling.) Getting kids outside and active is important, he said.
“It’s been a great outlet,” he said of the small-group training guidelines for kids. “They’re getting great fitness, and it’s been fun for them. I think it’s been super positive.”