JUNE 17, 2020 — Alaskans are out to play during long days that end in midnight sun. Softball fields are packed. The trails are teeming with bikers and walkers. Kids are back to playing full-contact soccer games, and parents are lined up on the sidelines to watch.
These activities are taking place in Alaska communities while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Cases have been rising day after day since the end of May. Alaska now has more current cases than it did early in the outbreak when we first hunkered down. That means we all need to keep doing what we can to prevent the spread of illness while being active — especially when our activities involve groups of people.
As Alaska reopens, your family gets to choose if they’ll participate in group activities and team sports. Different families are making different decisions about that after balancing the risk of spreading COVID-19 with the benefits of staying active. The message in Alaska is definitely to get out and play. It’s critical to improve your outlook and reduce your stress. So pick your favorite activity and do it. But if that activity typically involves groups of people — participants or spectators — you need to weigh the risks and benefits for your family and others you work with or regularly spend time with each week. Your family’s chances for serious illness may be low, but your actions and interactions could put others’ health at risk if you work in a nursing home or have close, frequent contact with customers, for example. If you participate in or watch sports, keep finding ways to limit the spread of illness to others.
“If everyone gives a little right now, we will all get a lot,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “Choose to wear your face covering in public places. Keep staying at least six feet from others. If we all do that, we can keep Alaska’s COVID-19 cases low and continue to enjoy sports and other activities that we’ve been missing.”
Participating in and watching group sports must be done differently this year in order to keep Alaska’s COVID-19 cases as low as possible. That’s because attending gatherings, like those that happen with team sports, is one known interaction that increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Those chances go up when a child or coach interacts with more people, when physical interactions are closer and longer, and when multiple players increase the sharing of sports equipment.
“I know how important summer sports are to families,” Zink said. “I’m hearing from a lot of parents wondering what to do. These are really hard decisions to make, and what works for one family may not work for another. If you spend time with an older person or someone else facing higher chances of illness, it’s very important to make sure your other interactions with people are at a distance. That includes your time participating in and watching sports.”
Anchorage Little League starts a late season by changing everything
Jessie Weiler grew up playing Dimond West Little League, her kids play Dimond West and she’s now the volunteer president. She surveyed Anchorage families to see if they’d participate this summer, and many said they wanted their kids to play ball. Dimond West put together a later-than-usual season that started with a COVID-19 mitigation plan, new consent forms and health assessments every time a child comes to the field.
“This is not a normal year,” Weiler said she tells parents. “When you think of traditional Little League and the traditional season, this is not it. We have basically restructured everything.”
“Start stretching now,” she said. “Because flexibility is going to be key.”
The special season has new rules for everything: Watching kids during practice is discouraged. Watching games is limited and parents must keep distance from others. Kids, volunteers and parents must wear face coverings whenever possible, but kids won’t be required to wear them during games, Weiler said. Kids are strongly discouraged from sharing any gear. Balls and other gear are sanitized between games, and there’s hand sanitizer when you enter and also on the field.
Dimond West Little League is making it easier to follow these new rules. They bought buffs for every child and volunteer, so everyone on the field will have one to cover their noses and mouths. They also gathered extra bats and helmets to lend to children who didn’t have their own.
Alaska families choose to participate or not in summer group sports
Harlow Robinson is an Anchorage parent of two teenage boys interested in other summer sports. He’s also the executive director of Healthy Futures, an Alaska nonprofit program that provides free physical activity challenges for children. This summer, he started organizing a community forum called the “Responsible Return to Alaska Sports and Recreation,” which has a regularly updated Facebook page. Robinson and his wife, a local nurse, talked with their sons about balancing the value of being involved in their favorite sports versus the potential risk of spreading infection. They decided to let their sons participate.
“We don’t take any of these decisions lightly,” Robinson said. “We made the decision that allowing our kids to participate in the activities that are important to them is an acceptable risk so long as we feel like we are doing what we can to lower the chances of spreading infection.”
Robinson said his son’s running group has a safety plan to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. The teens are required to bring face coverings and stay separated while running outside. If they pass anyone, they’re required to wear the covering. His son’s basketball team also shared similar precautions about keeping distance from others, although that’s not possible when actually playing a game.
“Our biggest concern is protecting people in the community that are most vulnerable,” Robinson said. “Through all of this, we maintained small bubbles of interactions. We’ve decided to let the sports community into those bubbles.”
At the same time, he said, the family maintained rigid limitations on how they interacted with the teens’ grandparents. That included always wearing a mask around them, meeting outdoors, and staying at least 6 feet away. Robinson’s family also tightened other interactions. They shop one at a time in stores. They wear face coverings in public places.
“Because at the end of the day, there’s still a pandemic,” Robinson said.
Other Alaska parents have carefully considered the decision of allowing their kids to participate in summer sports, and have decided to decline. An Alaska mother of a family who chose not to be named has a teenager who plays volleyball. The family read COVID-19 mitigation plans for summer volleyball camps prior to deciding if their daughter would attend. The mother said she let her daughter try a camp, but then learned that the other players were not keeping distance from others. They were gathering in groups, high-fiving and not wearing face coverings. She shared concern that all participants in sports are not being as careful as they could be to prevent spreading COVID-19. Her daughter stopped participating in that camp.
“I want my daughter to play volleyball in the worst way because she loves volleyball,” the mother said.
“There was a gap between the safety measures our family was taking and those of the organizers and many of the participants in the camp,” she said. “The need to responsibly navigate that divide was too much pressure for a teenager.”
Taking steps to stay healthy and prevent spreading illness through sports
If you or your child chooses to participate in a group activity or team sport, you can take steps to improve the chances of staying healthy and preventing the spread of illness to teammates, coaches and spectators. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published considerations for ways that sports organizations can protect players, families and communities.
The CDC explains the risk of COVID-19 spreading in youth sports as follows:
- Lowest Risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members
- Increasing Risk: Team-based practice
- More Risk: Within-team competition
- Even More Risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area
- Highest Risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas
Below are additional related Questions and Answers.
What should you think about when choosing the activities and team sports for your family?
Dr. Zink asked families to consider these questions as they make their decisions:
- How much risk is your family willing to accept? Do you work with someone at higher risk of serious illness or have someone at higher risk in your small, trusted social bubble?
- Is there a quality mitigation plan and are coaches, participants and spectators following it? These plans should address the following questions, as examples:
- Does the plan include engaging in physical distancing while not actively engaged in play (for example, during practice, on the sidelines, or in the dugout)?
- Does it limit the unnecessary use of shared equipment and gear (for example, protective gear, bats and water bottles)?
- Does it limit nonessential visitors, spectators and volunteers during practices and games?
- Does it keep game interaction within the local community (no travel)?
- Does everyone agree not to participate in practices and games if they have or a household member has COVID-19 symptoms?
- Are organizers of activities and team sports keeping a roster of everyone who participates or attends, in the case that someone gets COVID-19 and others will need to be notified if they had close contact with that ill person?
As with all COVID-19 guidance, please check with your local community to ensure you are following specific requirements in your area.
How can parents keep the gatherings from getting too large, increasing the chances of spreading illness?
In a typical year, the whole family might attend soccer practice or games. After all, you want to cheer on your child and it’s a great way to catch up with friends on the sidelines. This is not a typical year, however, and socializing, yelling and cheering within close proximity of others needs to be avoided to prevent spreading illness.
If your child is old enough, choose not to stay at the practice or game. Remain in your car when you drop them off and pick them up, or choose to walk or bike. If you stay, have one parent come and leave other family members at home.
Greet others and socialize from a distance. Don’t gather with others. Make sure you stand or set up your lawn chair or blanket at least 6 feet away from others or farther if you’ll be cheering. Ring bells and use other ways to support the team that don’t require using your voice. Wear a face covering while you are there.
What should you bring — or not bring — to group activities to prevent the spread of illness?
This is not the summer to share foods and drinks. Bring only foods and drinks for your own child. Don’t encourage children to group up at the end of a game to eat or drink together. Rethink your end-of-season celebration. Instead of a potluck party that involves sharing pizza, schedule a picnic and ask everyone to bring their own food and blanket.
Bring your own hand sanitizer and wipes, using sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Sanitize your hands often, including before and after touching bats, balls or other gear; before eating or drinking; and after using a porta potty or restroom. If it’s an option, wash your hands with soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer.
Should kids share gear during practices and games?
To prevent spreading illness, participants and coaches are encouraged not to share any type of gear. That includes bats, gloves, helmets, water bottles, jerseys, pinnies, towels and more.
Can I drive the carpool to practice or games?
This year, carpooling is discouraged to prevent people from multiple households having close contact for an extended amount of time. The best choice is to bike, walk or drive with only family members or those in your small, trusted social bubble.
“If you do drive people from outside your household to an activity, everyone in the car should wear face coverings,” Zink said. “If possible, open car windows to improve air flow and reduce the chances of spreading illness.”
Your child is in the championship game, and you and grandma really want to watch. Should you go?
Look for creative ways that don’t involve actually attending the game. Since grandma is at higher risk of serious illness, help organize a parent who will video the game and share it in real time online, using an app like Facebook Live. That way grandma can watch, too.
You can prevent spreading COVID-19 by limiting close contact with others — including other spectators at group activities and games. Bring your own chair, blanket or umbrella. Usually, the kind thing to do is to share what you bring with others. This summer, the kind thing is not to share. Stay on your own blanket or spot on the bleachers and at least 6 feet from others, and even farther if you’ll be cheering.
What happens if a coach or player on a sports team tests positive for COVID-19?
When Alaska’s public health nurses receive a report of a positive COVID-19 test result, they immediately reach out to that person (or to their parent or guardian) to interview them about who they had close contact with recently. Close contact typically means 15 or more minutes of contact within 6 feet of someone outside your household. If that close contact includes all or most members of a sports team, the nurses would contact each person to request that they quarantine themselves for 14 days from the date of their last exposure with the sick teammate or coach. The nurses may have to contact the coaches to get a complete roster of who was present during the practice, game or event. That could include spectators and parents.
Visit the "COVID-19 in Alaska" website for updated information for the state.
Photograph courtesy of Dimond West Little League in Anchorage