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Reactions vary over county’s youth sports guidelines

On July 15, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page asserted that youth sports activities were “the primary source of spread (of COVID-19) in the community.” In so doing, he stirred up plenty of controversy and opposition.

Ben Ruck, president of the Ellisville Athletic Association (EAA), has been one of the most vocal opponents to Page’s claim that the community’s recent rise in COVID-19 cases can be linked to youth sports.

“EAA has fully complied with the guidelines from STL County government and has gone the extra mile in regards to sanitation procedures to keep everyone safe,” Ruck said in a written statement posted on July 19, “Out of 85 teams, we are aware of only one parent who has tested positive for Covid-19, which was not traced back to our park.”

In a follow-up statement, the county health department noted that it wasn’t necessarily participation in sports that was spreading COVID-19, but the activities that often are associated with youth sports.

“While the risk of transmission during competitive youth sports games is most likely low, all of the activities surrounding the games increase the likelihood of spreading the virus,” read a statement released on July 23. “This includes teams, coaches and parents gathering before, during and after games and practices, carpooling and other activities associated with participating in sports teams, especially if proper mitigation practices are not in place.”

Map shows COVID-19 positive cases across West County as of July 24, 2020
(Source: St. Louis Health Department — https://stlcorona.com/resources/covid-19-statistics1/)

But some are questioning the validity of the data being provided by the health department – the same data that Page is basing his decisions on.

Ruck is part of a group calling itself the St. Louis Sports COVID-19 Coalition, whose members include many West County sports organizations. The Coalition is challenging Page head-on.

“To think an appointed County Executive and his handpicked band of un-elected doctor friends, can spew their vague ‘opinions and accusations’ to justify a shutdown of a recreational industry impacting 100,000 people in a community of 1 million is a travesty,” read a post by the group on the Facebook page for St. Louis PowerPlex.

On July 20, the Coalition delivered a letter to Page outlining their concerns and demands. Chief among those concerns is the validity and accuracy of the data being used by Page and Health Department officials. In response to Page’s initial assertion about the role of youth sports in spreading COVID-19, the Coalition said they quickly obtained data from their own members.

Per the Coalition’s report on July 23, out of 12,470 youth athletes, only 2 reported positive COVID-19 cases. Perhaps more troubling, according to the Coalition, neither family of the two positive athletes has been contacted for trace contacting by the health department. The Coalition has formally asked for an explanation from Page and the health department as well as more specific data that would justify the assertion that youth sports are driving the area spike in new COVID-19 cases.

As of press time, the Coalition maintained it had received no response from Page or the county health department.

The Coalition hosted a virtual protest after Page’s announcement and with their call to action over 100 written comments were received for the St. Louis County Council meeting on July 21. It took over two hours for those comments to be read. The authors identified themselves as coaches and parents, both Democrats and Republicans.

Despite these efforts, the council voted along party lines with the four Democrats voting against a measure to check Page’s authority to shut down youth sports. Afterward, Republican members of the council voiced their continued frustration with what they have termed as an elite, liberal agenda against individual rights.

“Despite more than 100 public comments (a new record) in support of Bills 151 & 152, they were just voted down (without discussion) by Sam Page’s County Council allies. They didn’t trust you, the voters, to have control over your own lives & those of your kids. #TooMuchPower”

Tim Fitch (@ChiefTimFitch) July 22, on Twitter

Page claims he is getting input from more than just members of the health department. Since the beginning of the pandemic, St. Louis County has worked in close step with St. Louis City and the head of city’s Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Alex Garza. In addition, a task force specific to youth sports was created in partnership with several area health institutions, pediatricians and other health officials. The St. Louis Sports Medicine COVID-19 Task Force recently amended its guidelines to be consistent with the area moving back to Phase 1 restrictions.

“During this phase, individual workouts are allowed to begin on campus or
at the organization’s facility,” the Task Force announced on July 15. “However, no more than 10 individuals, including coaches, are recommended in a space. The space should be separated by a barrier or large enough distance that individuals can maximize social distancing. No players or coaches should be within 6 feet of each other. There should be no interaction between groups of 10 during this phase.”

The fall sports domino effect

The added restrictions present a host of challenges for area high school teams as well.

Football season is just around the corner and now is the time when coaches and players typically spend valuable time on fundamental skills. All of this begs the question of whether student-athletes will be ready to play when the season starts in a few short weeks.

“Our focus right now is not on getting back to participating in competitions – though we look forward to resuming full play – but rather on being able to continue to provide a safe and healthy environment for our student-athletes within the confines of the current guidelines.”

Parkway Central Athletic Director John Theobald

When asked if returning to Phase 1 restrictions would have an impact on getting players ready for fall competition, several local athletic directors did not hesitate to respond.

“Absolutely. As long as we’re in Phase 1 and we’re only allowed to have 10 people in a designated area … it’s absolutely affecting how we prepare,” Eureka High Athletic Director Gregg Cleveland said. “We can’t do any type of contact drills. We’re can’t work on the things we normally work on this summer.”

Like many other programs, the Eureka High football team had already taken many additional steps to keep students healthy during summer workouts. Based on the July 14 recommendations from the Missouri Football Coaches Association, Eureka was keeping all practices and scrimmages “in house” to limit interaction with students from other schools. Additionally, Eureka canceled its annual jamboree to kickoff the football season.

All of these changes, coupled with some programs in the area canceling their seasons all together, has created a “domino effect” of challenges for Cleveland and other local ADs.

“It’s an ongoing process because its always changing,” Cleveland said, noting that he’s speaking with his counterparts at other West County schools. “We are meeting and talking on a regular basis. Everybody’s on the same page … we’re at the mercy of what St. Louis County throws at us.”

Despite facing these unprecedented challenges, Cleveland said he’s encouraged his coaches and parents to stay positive.

“My biggest message to the coaches is to control what you can control,” Cleveland said.

That’s a theme shared by at least one other West County AD.

“Our focus right now is not on getting back to participating in competitions – though we look forward to resuming full play – but rather on being able to continue to provide a safe and healthy environment for our student-athletes within the confines of the current guidelines,” Parkway Central Athletic Director John Theobald said.

Theobald expressed the same disappointment shared by many throughout the St. Louis area but he was quick to emphasize that the health of students must come first.

“As everyone is trying to figure out how to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, Parkway Central is no different,” Theobald said. “The best thing we can do to ensure the safety and health of our athletes is to continue to follow the guidelines put forth by the St. Louis County health department and the St. Louis Sports Medicine Task Force.”

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