Some Baltimore youth sports groups will be allowed to play this fall after Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young reversed course Wednesday and announced the city once again would issue permits for kids leagues.
The city had decided earlier this summer to suspend youth athletic programs and permits for the fall 2020 season because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But the choice drew flak from families who said their children were desperate for an outlet — and who questioned why the city was still allowing adults leagues to get field permits.
Under pressure, Young announced earlier this month that the Recreation and Parks Department and Health Department would dig into the data and make recommendations for fall youth sports.
“They have met, evaluated the data and even incorporated the guidance released late last week from the state," Young said Wednesday. "Today, we are now confident to permit and provide youth sports leagues this fall.”
The city will require everyone to wear masks, and there will be a limit of two spectators per youth participant. Shared equipment much be sanitized frequently, and coaches are asked to avoid contact like high-fives and team huddles.
Sports involving large amounts of physical contact — tackle football, rugby and wrestling — still will not be permitted. There continues to be no athletic restrictions for adult sports.
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the city must balance both the need to recognize it’s still in the midst of a global pandemic and that children need the opportunity for play.
Outdoor activities are considered to be at a lower risk for COVID-19 transmission. Movie theaters, indoor dining and casinos are currently allowed to operate at limited capacities.
“Families are having a really tough time right now, and providing these relatively safe outlets for kids is important,” said Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Roughly 10% of the city’s 15,309 confirmed coronavirus cases involve those 19 years old or younger, according to city data, and none have died. Nearly 550 children younger than 10 years old in the city have tested positive for the virus.
Younger children are considered at a much lower risk for getting sick from the virus and being outside carries a lower risk for transmission, too, Sell said. Even a short collision on the field is not the kind of sustained close contact that the Centers for Disease Control is warning against, she said.
Still, there remains concern about children transmitting the virus to older, potentially more vulnerable members of their community.
“You can’t say that anything is zero risk,” Sell said.
In thinking about what to do about her own son, Sell she would be “selective and think through what’s happening on the field and the sidelines.”
Ultimately, though, she’s looking to sign him up for a youth soccer league.
According to new city guidance, fall field usage can be revoked at any time if guidelines are not followed. There will be a team of “park ambassadors” on site during games to verify no rules are broken.
“If any guidance is violated, notice of immediate revocation of permits will be issued from the permits office via an official email with no questions asked,” the guidance states. “Permits will be revoked for six months for a violation.”
Chuck Fancher, commissioner for the Roland Park Baseball Leagues, called the decision “quite a reversal.” He said he was delighted that kids would have the opportunity to play baseball on city fields in the coming months, and that his league would be able to host its fall skills clinic.
The league operated safely over the summer, he said, and put together an advisory committee that included local doctors to think through protocols. Leagues will be required to put together similar plans — outlining steps they’ll take to ensure compliance with social distancing, masking and screening guidelines — if they want a fall permit.
“It’s good news all around,” Fancher said.
Kurt Overton, a longtime youth sports coach, rallied families to speak out against Young’s initial decision to suspend fall leagues. He said the new guidelines represent the “right thing to do.”
Still, he said some youth leagues already have planned out their games for the fall and closed registration. His own children have all-away games scheduled for now, sometimes in different counties on the same day.
Because of the late notice on the fall permitting process, the city said it will offer all youth and adult leagues who participated in the 2019 fall season the opportunity to use the fields they played on in the previous year.