By Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida says it is time for kids to have some summer fun playing sports and going to camp together again. After two months of shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, sports leagues, summer camps and organized recreation activities across the state are now being allowed to reopen. Beyond the symptom screening, sanitizing and social distancing, what needs to be done to help ensure that kids can go running, jumping, swimming, kicking and screaming in a safe way?
Florida has had something of an early lead when it comes to managing sports in coronavirus times. In mid-April, with professional sports suspended, WWE was cleared to stage wrestlers-only television events after DeSantis designated “professional sports and media production with a national audience” at a location “closed to the general public” as essential services. And throughout the pandemic, the NBA and MLB have been among the major leagues exploring plans for restarting their seasons at sites in Florida, including Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. But those decisions have concerned paid adults—not kids—getting back in the game.
The decision to lift restrictions on youth sports and recreation activities, according to an announcement from DeSantis, was based on a few key factors. One is the low COVID-19 infection rate among children. Another is concern for children’s physical and emotional health. A third is what youth sports and recreation programs could contribute to local communities and economies.
Florida has recorded just over 50,000 of the more than 1.6 million COVID-19 cases in the United States to date, according to Johns Hopkins data tracking. The state has also recorded about 2,200 of the more than 100,000 deaths across the country. There are all sorts of suggestions as to what is leading to those relatively low rates in Florida—from public response to social distancing measures and disaster response from experience with hurricanes to early orders banning outside visitors from entering nursing homes and restricting COVID-positive patients from returning to nursing homes after they were sent to hospitals. Meanwhile, like many places around the nation and the world, Florida hasn’t been without its share of people missing the point. Crowding at popular public places, especially beaches and bars, has made headlines. So, too, have questions about officials manipulating data to make the coronavirus case numbers appear better than they might actually be.
In any case, Florida appears to be weathering the pandemic in good enough condition to begin reopening many services. One of the last states to issue a “safer-at-home” order, it is one of the first states to go ahead with opening up organized sports and recreation activities.
Sports and recreation are an important part of healthy childhood. Sports and recreation promote lifelong physical, cognitive, social, and emotional growth and wellbeing. And the more age-appropriate and child-directed the activities are, the more likely children are to engage in and learn from them. In other words, there is good reason behind telling kids who are participating in sports to “go out there and have fun.”
The Trump administration is so far leaving it up to states to decide what and when to reopen. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are issuing guidelines and national experts, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, are providing recommendations to help along the way. The final rules are going to happen more locally, in the offices of mayors, municipality parks and recreation departments, camps and youth leagues. But the ultimate decision will come from people’s homes, where kids and their families determine what they are comfortable doing.
A great deal of attention is being paid to safety measures for activities taking place as people gather in spaces away from their homes. Messages about social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing, spitting, and temperature checking are becoming the norm. Those are important and should not be taken for granted when sports and recreation facilities reopen. But there are some other things that need to be done to provide a sense of safety and assurance for kids and their families.
First, sports and recreation organizers need to make sure that kids are being eased back into activities. The past two months of lockdowns and quarantines have rendered kids more physically inactive and physically distanced than usual. The activities they are about to be able to engage in will need to be gradually introduced, similar to why the pros go to Spring Training and pre-season training camps. Part of that introduction is going to be an orientation—with many reminders to follow—about everything from how closely they can play with each other, how competitive they can be with one another, and how they can safely share equipment.
Second, sports and recreation organizers need to make sure that they are relentless with rules, but limit the number of them. Sports and recreation facilities are going to look and sound different than they did the last time athletes and coaches, and campers and counselors showed up to playing grounds. Making sure that everyone is playing in ways that reduce the risk of injury and that they feel comfortable and safe in the space are typical challenges. Now added to that mix is the need to make sure that everyone is physical distancing, hand washing, and wearing personal protective equipment. There are also almost certain to be different degrees of trauma that people will be contending with due the pandemic. In this “new normal,” instituting too many rules creates confusion—and confusion increases the likelihood that rules won’t be followed.
Third, sports and recreation organizers need to make sure that parents, guardians and caregivers are informed and involved from the start. This moment, with social distancing guidelines at full strength, might seem like as good a time as any to keep those over-the-top sports dads and soccer moms away from kids’ fields of play. But it’s an even better moment to connect with the ones who are interested more than anything else in having their kids “go out there and have fun.” Parents, guardians, and caregivers are key to children’s participation in sports and recreation, beginning with completing the forms and signing the waivers to let them play. During the pandemic, it is especially important that they are part of the process, including to help provide safeguards in and around the home, so that as many people stay as healthy as possible. Older adults need to be alert to their risk factors and reduce exposures accordingly.
Sports leagues, summer camps, and recreation centers are also going to have to manage funding issues. The current economic climate is leading to a loss of revenues at the same time that organizations are spending additional resources on protective measures. They are also having to deal with a range of issues around accessibility and inequity. Youth sports in the U.S. is a $19-billion-a-year enterprise, but kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods need recreational opportunities, too.
For youth sports leagues and recreation programs this summer, high fives are out and hand sanitizing stations are in. There are still a lot of questions coming up, including about who is responsible when a kid gets sick and carries the virus home, as well as when it is time to quarantine or even temporarily close down. But in a state like Florida, if responsible risk management can be promulgated and followed, it is time to try.
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