With state officials still largely silent on guidelines for a host of youth sports games, many parents, players and teams across Orange County are coming up with their own approaches.
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Some Orange County parents are driving their children to Arizona and Nevada so the kids can play games during the coronavirus pandemic, with some parents spending thousands of dollars in the process.
State officials have yet to update guidelines to allow for youth sports games as retail shops, malls, restaurants, places of worship, gyms and beauty salons have reopened with limited capacity.
Currently, the state guidelines essentially only allow for practices and training in most sports because players are required to stay six-feet away from each other.
“Outdoor and indoor sporting events, assemblies, and other activities that require close contact or that would promote congregating are not permitted at this time,” states the guidelines. “For example, tournaments, events, or competitions, regardless of whether teams are from the same school or from different schools, counties, or states are not permitted at this time.”
Huntington Beach parent Mina Rose said her daughter’s skills are getting rusty because she can’t play games, which could be dimming her hopes of playing college soccer. In the meantime, her daughter has been practicing at the Great Park in Irvine.
“It’s changing the trajectory of these kids’ lives forever. My daughter wants to play soccer in college,” Rose said. “They’ve been practicing, but this practice … they all have to stand so far apart and kick the ball around and if they get too close, somebody in a golf cart comes and yells at them.”
She’s one of many OC parents who are taking road trips out of state so their kids can play.
“I’m fortunate that I can go to Arizona. But what about the other families that can’t do that?” Rose said.
And the costs for hotel stays, gas and food are adding up, she said.
“It’s not cheap. hotel, travel, gas, food. We’ll pitch in as a team and help the kids that can’t go,” Rose said. “The hotel rooms are like 200 bucks a night and you stay two to three nights. … it can run you anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500, depending on how many people are in your family.”
One Yorba Linda parent is also taking the roughly 6-hour road trip to Phoenix so their daughter can play soccer.
“I’m categorized as immunocompromised, so I have to be conscientious. But I’m not going to stop my life. It’s not fair to my child — we can’t just lock up and not go out,” the parent said, asking to not be named because they fear potential backlash from the soccer community.
The single parent said they had a stem cell transplant about 10 years ago for leukemia. They said they have their daughter stand far back from the teams and they don’t go into restaurants when they travel because of virus fears.
Depending on the league, there’s some safety precautions too.
Rob Fisher, the executive director of the Strikers Football Club of Orange County, said some of the out of state tournaments require all coaches and team managers are required to test negative for the virus before they can participate in tournaments.
“I just had my coaches get tested this past week and they all came back negative,” Fisher said in a Friday interview.
He also said the leagues in Nevada and Arizona have strict protocols limiting the number of people who can show up to the field so people don’t crowd and increase the chances of the virus spreading.
“So as a club for one game, we’re only allowed to have 36 spectators watch, because we have 18 players,” Fisher said. “Referees, officials have to wear masks. Coaches have to wear masks and players, when they’re not playing, have to wear masks.”
Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, said while he understands parents’ desire to have their kids play and the character building sports help develop in children, it’s not the time to resume competitive games in most sports because of close crowding either in the game, or the dugout or sidelines.
“What we don’t want is kids getting it and spreading it to their parents and grandparents,” Noymer said in a Thursday phone interview.
He said the same public health rules need to apply to everyone for consistency and overall effectiveness in reducing virus transmission.
“Because basically the six-foot distancing and masking rule applies to everybody, soccer players included,” Noymer said. “You can’t play a competitive soccer game for 90-minutes with a mask on. Maybe you can, but we all know those masks are going to fall down.”
Although, he said sports like tennis and golf are fine since the players are naturally more than six feet away from each other.
Noymer said professional soccer players in Europe have been testing positive for the virus, but it’s still unclear if the virus was transmitted on the field or not.
“Shoulder to shoulder contact is legal. So that means people are coming into close contact with each other on the soccer field. So it’s impossible to socially distance and play a real soccer match,” he said.
Fisher said their soccer club hasn’t seen an outbreak or cases among their players, parents and coaches.
“I’m not a doctor, but our club’s taking it very seriously,” he said. “But I think just with common sense, the kid’s being outside in the fresh air … making sure we don’t have a lot of parents around, I don’t really think they’re going to be spreading it on a soccer field.”
At a Thursday news conference, Dr. Matt Zahn, director of the Communicable Disease Control Division Orange County at the county Health Care Agency, said public health officials haven’t seen any cases stemming from the out-of-state sports trips.
Although, Zahn said he’s concerned about what people do once they get there.
“But there are reasons that people should be aware of that could put you at particular risk. That is if you end up in close contact with someone who has COVID or somewhere else,” Zahn said. “My major concern is truly less where you go compared to what you do when you go there. If you go with a large group of people, that’s going to be concerning no matter what.”
Zahn also noted that Orange County’s cases are starting to see an uptick over the past couple weeks.
Today, county Health Care Agency officials announced nine new deaths related to the virus.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,503 people out of 61,421 confirmed OC cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. Of that number, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, over 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
As of Friday, 177 people were hospitalized, including 72 in intensive care units.
During the summer case spikes, over 700 people were hospitalized at one point in July. Since then, the hospitalization numbers slowly dropped, dipping to 155 early October, but have slowly climbed since then.
Coronavirus positivity rates, which are one of the keys to business and school reopenings, are higher in north and central Orange County, compared to south county.
Orange County is in the Red Tier under the state’s four-tiered reopening system. That means retailers, malls, beauty salons, movie theaters, restaurants, gyms and places of worship are open under limited capacity.
Larger entertainment venues, like theme parks, sports stadiums and bowling alleys remain closed.
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear when state public health officials will release updated youth sports guidelines that could allow for games.
At an Oct. 20 news conference, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, said officials were working on the guidelines.
He said they’re talking to numerous youth sports organizations about the guidelines.
“Everything from pony and little league to indoor basketball and swimming. So each of them has their own independent story and we’re working to get it right and working hard to get it out soon,” Ghaly said.
Yet officials said the same thing for months about theme park guidelines, which won’t open any time soon.
Although Ghaly said youth sports are “important life-forming activities for young people. And we’re very interested in that.”
Rose, the Huntington Beach parent, said she’s been continuing to email and call state public health officials for an update.
“No one’s getting back. Our Governor’s office, state health officials, nobody’s getting back to me,” Rose said. “I feel like we’re the forgotten people. Nobody’s looking after these kids.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio