Return to play or not? A thorny question for youth sports

Members of the Roxanna Shells youth baseball team taking fielding practice on Saturday, May 9, before their first game of the Mother's Day Classic baseball tournament on organized by GameTime Tournaments in Cottleville, Missouri. Many parents in Oregon are unsure of when their children will be able to return to playing sports.

I’ve been in regular communication with the governor’s office in the last couple of weeks. Mostly because my email inbox is filled with questions from youth sports parents and coaches who are feeling left in the dark.

What can they do?

What’s allowed for their sport?

What do Gov. Kate Brown’s guidelines and restrictions mean to their kid’s youth sports season and practices?

I reached out to the governor’s office with some specific questions about whether sports practices, using healthy six-foot distancing and careful sanitization, are allowed. I got some answers. But what I learned isn’t going to be nearly enough to satisfy the masses.

Here it goes:

• Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director, told me, “We understand how important practice is for student-athletes, especially older students who may be trying to secure college scholarships. Under the current limitations on large gatherings and nonessential travel, it is possible that coaches could work with very small groups of athletes, as long as six feet of space was maintained between all participants.”

• Social and recreational gatherings outside of a residence are NOT allowed, Boyle said, “unless a distance of at least six feet can be consistently maintained between individuals from different households.” In the event that six feet can be maintained, gatherings of up to 10 individuals are allowed. This means you could conceivably hold a practice if you can both maintain six-feet of distance between kids and limit the group to less than 10. Also, you don’t want to share equipment that isn’t being sanitized.

• However — and it’s a BIG however — Boyle underscored that in areas where COVID-19 outbreaks are prevalent, even a small-group gathering comes with an amplified risk. He said, “particularly for coaches who are older or who have underlying health conditions.”

• Individual workouts for athletes are still the safest course of action, with a coach participating by videoconference or other remote means.

• Boyle tells me, “There are a number of issues we are discussing with stakeholders, and I want to stress that none of this guidance has been finalized yet and is subject to change. However, there are a number of key questions we are trying to address when it comes to ensuring safety. One of the key questions, for example, involves the possibility of limiting interaction to distinct cohorts of kids, using sanitized equipment. Likely, only small, distinct groups of kids would be able to practice or play with each other, without interacting with other groups. That might mean a team could practice together or scrimmage, for example, or even that athletes might be able to participate in a limited summer sports camp. But, in that scenario, it’s unlikely that league play, with different teams of kids playing games and rotating through a schedule would be feasible.”

• Temperature screenings and other screening measures — making sure kids who are feeling sick stay home, for example — are ideas under discussion, per Boyle. However, no screening measure is foolproof, especially when the disease can be spread while people are asymptomatic.

• Boyle said, “While we would like to give youth athletes and parents more certainty around this issue, especially given the positive mental and physical benefits sports can provide in times like these, this is unfortunately a case where the spread of coronavirus will dictate the timeline of when sports activities can resume, as well as how those activities will need to be modified for health and safety.”

Maybe some of this helps your team with guidance. Maybe it just amplifies the fact that we’re essentially living in uncertain times. But I’ll continue to ask your questions. Email me at and I’ll ask your specific questions.

None of the parents and coaches I received emails from advocated for playing in unsafe conditions. I simply think people were frustrated left in a fog, alone to navigate uncertainty. Also, to be fair, I think the governor’s office had bigger fish to fry with struggling small businesses, the economy at large, and public health taking higher priority positions. The OSAA has some additional guidance on its website, but I’ll continue to ask your questions.

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