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Youth sports advocates seek answers over COVID-19 shutdown

Soccer fields, baseball diamonds, bleachers and clubhouses throughout St. Louis County have been a lot quieter than usual lately. That’s because restrictions put in place last month have greatly limited the team activities in which local youth can participate.

Those restrictions are yet another product of the COVID-19 pandemic. But some have taken exception to restrictive measures targeting youth sports.

The controversy started on July 15 when St. Louis County Executive Sam Page asserted that youth sports activities were “the primary source of spread (of COVID-19) in the community.” He then announced restrictive measures on all youth sports in St. Louis County.

The County Health Department quickly tried to clarify Page’s remarks and explain the need for such measures.

“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.”

But that statement did little to satisfy the outrage and disappointment of many area parents and business owners.

“There’s something that needs to be looked at here,” Councilmember Mark Harder [R – District 7] said recently, noting that he has requested data from the County Health Department and Page’s office for more than three weeks. He wants to know more about the data that county officials said was the basis for the recent restrictions on youth sports. When his repeated requests for information were ignored, Harder said he was forced to file a Sunshine Law request.

In his request, Harder asked for the following information:

  1. All data, reports, studies, etc. used to make the decision to seriously restrict youth sports activities in the St. Louis County region, which was announced on July 20, 2020, and any data which specifically showed that youth sports in St. Louis County was a strong vector for transmission of the coronavirus.
  2. Who, by title and name, made the decision to restrict youth sports activities as well as information regarding how and when was this decision made.
  3. All email communication between the Page administration and the County Health Department concerning the decision to restrict youth sports activities.

As of press time, Harder said the only response he has received is that the County Health Department is “working on it.”

Harder contends that Page and other county officials committed to making informed decisions based on data and facts earlier this year. Therefore, Harder doesn’t understand why there isn’t more transparency behind the rationale to shut down youth sports.

“They must have some extensive and detailed data that helped them come to that decision,” Harder said in an interview. Otherwise, he said, someone has a lot of explaining to do to thousands of area families and business owners.

Those impacted the most by the youth sports restrictions aren’t waiting around for county government to figure it out.

Members of the St. Louis Sports COVID-19 Coalition hold a virtual meeting with officials from the St. Louis County Health Department on July 31, 2020. (Source: Facebook)

A group of parents, coaches and business owners quickly formed the St. Louis Sports COVID-19 Coalition after Page’s initial comments, with the group behind POWERplex STL acting as its central organizer. The Coalition began pushing back against new county mandates restricting games and scrimmages.

“Schools and youth sports are completely different eco-systems. Competitive games do not involve hundreds of children gathering in small rooms, hallways, cafeterias and riding on buses. We are on acres of land and in large gyms with small numbers of kids,” a Coalition spokesperson said during an online exchange.

The Coalition took several steps after mobilizing in an attempt to have their concerns heard and addressed. First, the group requested additional information and the opportunity to dialogue with Page and County Health Officials. Additionally, they surveyed the families of their various associations, clubs and leagues regarding COVID-19 exposure.

Dr. Paul Hintze, the Chief Medical Officer for the St. Louis County Health Department, met with the Coalition on July 31. According to a statement released afterward by the Coalition, Hintze was receptive to the feedback and appreciative of the group’s efforts. But he told the Coalition there were no current plans to alter the new restrictions.

Despite the county’s lack of willingness to budge on the restrictions, the Coalition believes it has made its point.

“Clearly, from the information provided during today’s meeting, the county has no specific data or sports industry knowledge and admitted to having no Covid-19 contact tracing tied directly to the youth sports ecosystem,” the Coalition said in a statement to the press.

West Newsmagazine asked for comment and response to a handful of specific questions from the designated media contact for the County Health Department. No response was received.

The Coalition maintains that the restrictions should not have been placed on youth sports involving younger players.

“You shouldn’t punish tens of thousands of well-supervised youth athletes ages 6 to 15 (which represent 85% of the youth sports participants) because older teenage athletes are taking undue social risks, participating in unsafe activities off-the-field and contributing to the transmissions in older age brackets,” the Coalition said in a statement.

The Coalition said they did receive a follow-up email from Hintze providing the age breakdown of recent youth-related COVID-19 positive tests in St. Louis County. That breakdown, according to the Coalition, supports their argument that youth under 15 are not the primary carriers of the virus nor the cause of the recent spike.

West Newsmagazine was not able to independently verify the source of this data and we did not receive a response from the County Health Department.

On Monday, Aug. 10 some of the restrictions will be lifted as youth sports move to Phase 2, which will allow 20 youth to work with two coaches, all wearing masks.

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