The Ordner family from Brooklyn Park can tell you all about trying to play youth sports in a pandemic.
Six-year-old Cameron practiced karate on Zoom in March until the weather warmed up in May and June, then switched to a parking lot before returning indoors.
Older brother Caleb, 12, was set to play a full slate of 12U traveling baseball games this summer, including a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y. But instead of having about 50 games, the season consisted of about a dozen. And without the heralded traveling part — all games relatively close to home, no weekend trips like normal. Only weekday games.
He had it great, however, compared to 15-year-old sister Kate and her softball experience. Her summer house league through the Osseo Maple Grove Athletic Association didn’t have enough girls to play. Her father, Chris, was supposed to be a coach, but when it came time to put a team together, he and others couldn’t fill out a roster.
“For some people, the biggest thing was the unknown,” Chris Ordner said. “ ‘If I’m making a commitment to be on a team, what am I going to get? Am I going to have games? Am I going to have only practices? Are we only going to get started and then nothing?’ ”
Since youth sports got the state’s OK to resume in June, the result has been as uneven as the comfort levels among the thousands of families with children who wanted to play.
Some teams and leagues played. Some didn’t. The Minnesota Youth Soccer League’s Minnesota League One, Black and Blue Leagues, Futures League and summer state championships didn’t get their usual summer seasons. Some youth sports teams had COVID-19 cases and the ensuing two-week quarantine, some didn’t.
Now comes the winter sports season — basketball, hockey, wrestling and more — all with indoor environments that present different challenges. Some families plan to be full participants, some are undecided and some have made the difficult decision to take the winter off.
Summer and fall sports
The call arrived 15 minutes before the game.
Wayzata and Minneapolis were set to face off in a 5 p.m. 14U baseball game this summer. A half-hour earlier, a Trojans player received a positive test result for COVID-19. The family called the team at the field at 4:45 p.m. Within minutes, the game was canceled and everyone scattered.
The team immediately quarantined for two weeks.
“We knew exactly what the plan would be if a player tested positive,” said Joe Gearen, a parent of a team member.
No one else tested positive the rest of the season. After missing two weeks, Wayzata made up games as best it could.
Fifty-one outbreaks, which indicate two or more cases from one event, were tied to youth sports activities from June 1 through Oct. 3, according to Minnesota Department of Health figures. Of 2,821 COVID-19 cases surrounding sports activities, 1,000 included children, preliminary figures show. There were no hospitalizations or deaths of children in Minnesota relating to sports activities.
Clearly defined procedures and protocols as well as modifying some norms around sports, such as no postgame handshakes, helped limit the number of cases. Education is also vital, said Tarek Tomes, commissioner of Minnesota IT Services, who as a sports parent, athlete and coach has been tasked by Gov. Tim Walz to oversee youth sports in the state during the pandemic.
Among matters Tomes and others continue to emphasize:
“If an athlete has been in close contact and needs to quarantine,” Tomes said, “you can’t test out of that quarantine.”
Youth leagues are expected to use procedures and protocols to limit virus-spreading opportunities. The Mounds View Youth Football Association, for example, has each team separated into different areas when practicing on the same field. Athletes are not allowed to cross imaginary lines in the grass.
Urbae Hall, whose son Adam plays football in Mounds View, said kids overall have adhered to the guidelines. His son’s team has a volunteer parent who before every practice and game asks each player COVID-19 screening questions, takes their temperature and distributes hand sanitizer.
Hall credits those measures, and buy-in from athletes and parents, for not hearing of any COVID-19 cases surrounding any team in the league.
“It’s a team on the field and team of the parents and the community,” Hall said.
What about winter?
Alan Tsang of Minneapolis let his seventh-grade son, Haakon, play soccer right away this summer and fall. When it comes to hockey, however, Tsang still is deciding.
“I’m fairly comfortable with him playing, considering I’m playing pickup myself,” Tsang said. “On the other hand, playing pickup for me means three on the bench at most.”
If Haakon plays in his usual youth rec league through Minnesota Hockey, there likely will be more than three kids on the bench. Tsang is most worried about cramming kids onto the bench, along with policies for locker room use, also a small space.
Tomes acknowledged “a tremendous amount of concern” as youth sports move chiefly indoors. Restrictions, as in the summer and fall, could vary depending on geography. Another variable is air filtration capabilities in gyms and arenas, which can factor in virus spread.
“I think that [winter] sports do have a chance to work,” Tomes said. “And I think we have to accept there are going to be cancellations and quarantines.”
It will take some creativity, as some sports have already shown. Tim Swanson of Woodbury said his 9-year-old son dressed before arriving at the rink for hockey tryouts. Avoiding locker rooms, Woodbury has stations for athletes to tie skates once they arrive.
Maya Hentges, a 13-year-old swimmer in Sartell, swam with her school this fall as well as club. Coaches made the experience safer by reducing the number of swimmers in lanes during practices. Swimmers also wore their masks whenever they were not in the pool. No COVID-19 cases have popped up during Hentges’ time swimming this summer and fall.
“They’re going month-to-month [now],” Hentges said, “so I am just really hoping we can continue swimming as much as possible.”
Wrestling has been approved for Mounds View this winter, but Hall has not decided if she will let her son compete. She’s waiting to hear more about safety plans.
Some Minnesota families already have made the call to not participate. Claire Stewart, an eighth-grade basketball player in Edina, and her family made that decision. She is part of a blended family, so the traveling between the two households as well as risks with indoor sports played into the decision, said her father, Brett.
For those facing that decision, Tomes suggests looking at league and facility plans, what coaches are doing and how people are communicating.
“Really dig deep and do that investigative work to see how the various organizations and associations are planning on trying to play,” Tomes said. “Then making that really personal decision that is unique for each family.”
If the Ordners’ decisions to play were any indication, winter sports will yield their own set of unusual modifications for players and fans.
Home baseball games for Caleb this summer included roped-off metal bleachers for players only, to limit crowding in the dugout. Eventual indoor karate for Cameron left parents watching from the sidewalk outside. No softball games for Kate meant they had to get creative. Anywhere from three to seven girls gathered for about six weeks just to run drills. Just to get some kind of softball fix.
“It was a lot of what-ifs, could-have-beens, don’t know what is going to go on,” Chris said. “That, at the end of the day, was all that really came about.”