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Baltimore youth sports groups upset about city’s decision to suspend programs, field permits this fall

Athleticism runs strong in Laura Mackey Nattans’ family. Her father was the late John Mackey, the five-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Baltimore Colts who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. And her 10-year-old son John is a pitcher for the Roland Park Baseball Leagues and a forward for Pipeline Soccer.

But Nattans is concerned that Baltimore City’s recent decision to suspend youth sports and field permits this fall rob her son of an opportunity to enjoy athletic activity.

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“For John, it’s a part of his life,” said Nattans, who lives in Fells Point. “It’s everything. When there weren’t any sports [in the spring], he would be like, ‘Mom, what are we going to do?’ So I will come up with something. I will figure it out. I will have to get my son out and moving. That’s just a part of who he is.”

Advocates for youth sports leagues lambasted the city’s decision to suspend youth athletic programs and field permits this fall for those groups due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, adult leagues can continue to apply for field permits.

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“I feel like this is a pattern in our city,” said Kweisi Ehoize, founder and program director for Baltimore Terps Youth Sports. “Everybody talks about the kids and caring for our kids, but let’s do the extra work. I think that although I was disappointed that they abandoned youth sports for the rest of the season, it was a tremendous slap in the face, and I think it was very wrongheaded to say, ‘We’re going to now allow the adults to take the field.’”

“I just think it’s poor leadership,” said Kurt M. Overton, former commissioner and current board member and coach for the Roland Park Baseball Leagues. “The science is not pointing to this is the right thing to do for kids. We can do it safely, and it’s just incredibly disappointing that this is the action that the mayor has taken.”

Corey Goodwin, founder and coach of Visions Select Baseball Inc., praised city leaders for the herculean task of trying to keep residents safe, but said he has mixed feelings about banning youth sports leagues from city fields.

“If the people that are in charge of the youth sports are out there and practicing the right things and they’re being safe about it, I think that’s the right way to do it,” he said. “But to not have the opportunity to do those things, I don’t know if that’s fair for the children.”

The outcry stemmed from a memo distributed Aug. 28 by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks stating that programs and permits would be suspended beginning Sept. 16 “due to the health and safety of the participants.”

The agency said it would re-evaluate the policy in November and start to study permits for the spring season in December.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young addressed the development during a Friday morning news conference.

“I know a lot of residents are concerned and have reached out for guidance around youth sports,” he said. “Our summer youth sports sessions run through Sept. 15. Since the onset of the pandemic, Recreation and Parks has been fluid in their decision-making process. The agency has continually adjusted guidance as the data changed.

“Next week, the health department and Baltimore City Recs and Parks will meet again to re-evaluate the data and make recommendations for fall youth sports. Our main focus is on the health and well-being of our young people and our staff.”

After Young’s conference, the Department of Recreation and Parks provided further comment through a spokeswoman, saying, “As the city’s leading provider in recreation, we are responsible for protecting our youth. Shortly before we made this decision, the city guidance on outdoor gatherings was at 50% capacity and then decreased to 25% capacity deeming it unsafe to conduct youth sports. With each change, we have amended our response.”

The insistence that the decision protects young people sounded illogical to Dr. Stephen A. Berry, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, where he is associate vice chair for quality, safety and service. Barry pointed out that a small percentage of children have tested positive for COVID-19 and that adults spread the virus much more efficiently than children do.

Berry, whose 9-year-old son Peter is a pitcher for the Roland Park Baseball Leagues, noted that the state allowed movie theaters to begin operating Friday at 5 p.m.

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“As a physician, I’m not going to a movie theater, and I’m not going to have either of my two kids go,” said Barry, also an associate professor of medicine at Hopkins medical school. “So I believe that outdoor sports in particular are far, far safer than an enclosed theater. So it seems funny at any rate that while the movement is toward thinking that we’re in a safe enough place to start opening things, we would close down outdoor sports leagues.”

Nattans said the benefits of athletic activity for her son have become even more pronounced as he has returned to school.

“When the sports started up, it relieved so much pressure and anxiety as a parent,” she said. “It’s his outlet. I can’t imagine not having that outlet again. I’ll have to go back to the drawing board. We’ll find hiking trails, and we’ll do whatever we can to keep him physically active.”

Reporters Phil Davis and Talia Richman contributed to this story.

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