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Amid New Surge In Florida Virus Cases, Children Resume Sports Across State

The 9U Gatorball baseball team takes a knee on the field after its practice at Jonesville Park in Gainesville on Tuesday.
Lauren Witte
The Florida Channel
The 9U Gatorball baseball team takes a knee on the field after its practice at Jonesville Park in Gainesville on Tuesday.

Fifteen-year-old softball player Riley Diedrick wanted nothing more than to race alongside her friends.

She and her teammates in South Florida are thrilled to be back together playing the sport they love, even with health-related adjustments: Players aren’t wearing masks on the fields or in the dugouts, but they stand apart at practices, use hand sanitizer and bring their own sheets, covers and pillowcases to hotels during road games. 

Plus, a staple of youth sports is missing: No car pools. Players must travel in separate cars with their respective families to practices and out-of-town tournaments.

In Tallahassee, the owner of a children’s baseball league has banned young players from shaking hands, high-fiving and huddling at practice. 

Welcome to the summer of youth sports in America in 2020, the year of the virus. Anxious parents are balancing the threat of exposing their kids against a desire to return to childhood normalcy, to let them run and play outside with friends and teammates. It doesn’t help that kids are impatient and unconcerned about health risks.

“We get nervous, but I think it’s good that she’s doing it overall,” said Diedrick’s mother, Jill. “She thinks she’s invincible.”

For older, competitive players, the shutdown threatens to interfere with exposure to college coaches, who regularly start evaluating kids with top talent in their middle teens. Athletic scholarships can save families more than $100,000 in tuition and other fees over four years at a top university.

Mrs. Diedrick said this summer is crucial for her daughter’s future because college scouts start recruiting high school players for their softball teams in August.

Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted restrictions on youth activities, sports and summer camps May 22. Florida has experienced a surge of new reported cases since then, with a record of nearly 2,800 new cases in a single day earlier this week. The Republican governor said counties and cities can make their own decisions on restrictions. Miami-Dade County reopened its youth summer camps June 8.

Some doctors are concerned. Dr. David Dodson, an infectious disease specialist in West Palm Beach, said relaxing precautions can spread cases that will take weeks longer to detect – even if widespread tests were available.

“It’s a little bit disingenuous to make decisions like this when you don’t have everybody tested,” he said. “Testing discovers the cases, it doesn’t create the cases.”

Dodson said child athletes can infect an older family member at home, who might be more vulnerable if they already have respiratory problems like lung cancer. 

Diedrick said she and her team, the Miami Stingrays, started practicing in separate groups before playing in recent tournaments in Clermont and Gainesville. They will travel to Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee later this summer. During the shutdown, she was pitching on a makeshift mound in her back yard.

“It’s basically my whole life,” she said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said youth teams pose the highest risk of spreading disease when traveling for games or tournaments.

Playing against teams from other areas is less risky than traveling to get there, said Dr. Thuy Bui, a pediatric emergency medicine physician based in Atlanta. She said the risk of traveling on buses, or even in family vehicles, is high because the virus can spread quickly in enclosed spaces. 

In Tallahassee, the owner of the Tallahassee Heat baseball league, Kip West, said it was heartbreaking to see hundreds of tournaments and events canceled. He said older players are waiting to be scouted for high school and college teams.

“It’s just awful for the kids,” said West, 52, who has owned the league for 12 years.

West said he was prohibiting all 8- to 12-year-olds in the league from shaking hands, high-fiving and huddling. 

West’s teams haven’t traveled outside of Florida yet, but were planning to compete in southeast Alabama and Georgia for tournaments, West said. They won’t be staying overnight until further notice.

“The most important thing for us is the safety and comfort level of our kids,” West said. “It’s changed the way we parent.” 

J.J. Jacchia Beck, a mother of two from Orlando, said her daughters started playing soccer again earlier this month for the Florida Kraze Krush, the sixth-best youth girls soccer team under age 16 in the state, according to the youth soccer rankings website. 

Beck, 36, was fine sending her daughters back to practice because the club team enforces social distancing, requires each girl to bring her own ball and only allows coaches to handle cones and other equipment. She said her experience as an EMT tech and working in emergency room pre-surgeries left her feeling prepared.

“I’m not super crazy about coronavirus,” she said.

While at home, her 13-year-old would still run, practice drills and speak with her coach by video conference once a week. Her daughter’s coach instructed players to watch videos of professional soccer games to develop new strategies. 

“I’m just excited they’re back to doing it,” Beck said. “I think it helps kids. Kids being locked inside for months isn’t good for their mental status.”

Bui, the Atlanta doctor, said COVID-19 is tricky to navigate because children need the outside activities and social interaction in order to keep their physical and mental health intact. Is it safe to resume team sports? 

“Honestly, if you ask 10 different physicians, you’ll get 10 different answers,” Bui said. 

In Miami, i9 Sports franchise owner Alex Martinez decided to delay opening and implement safety precautions. The business includes co-ed teams for basketball, soccer, flag football and baseball at four Miami locations. He plans to open in stages with teams playing in smaller groups on fields where they can all remain a proper distance from one another. 

Martinez said the company lost a lot of potential revenue over the last two months. 

“When you can’t be open, obviously your livelihood has been affected,” he said.

His players won’t play games during the summer but instead in smaller-scale scrimmages starting July 11, Martinez said.

He said he will allow players to wear masks, provide disinfectant and hand sanitizer at multiple stations, and make practice days longer to stagger different age groups.

These unprecedented changes haven’t stopped young athletes like Diedrick and her team from playing well, in spite of the circumstances. Her mother said the team made it to the championship game against older teams in a recent tournament. 

They lost, but her mother hit a prideful note: “They’ve been doing very well,” she said this week. “They have a lot of talent on their team.”