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Baltimore adult rec sports leagues taking baby steps and precautions in return this summer

Charm City Soccer League is operating once again after a preview hiatus due to the coronavirus.
Charm City Soccer League is operating once again after a preview hiatus due to the coronavirus. (Courtesy of Mike Zerolnick / Charm City Soccer League)

Chris Castiglioni did not realize how much he was looking forward to the spring season of the Charm City Soccer League until the coronavirus pandemic forced the organization — and many other businesses in the Baltimore metropolitan area — to put everything on hold.

“Playing soccer is a big help for my mental health and exercise in general,” said Castiglioni, a 28-year-old restaurant equipment salesman from Arbutus. “When the pandemic started, not having soccer was sort of depressing in a way where I never felt the need to exercise just because I had no motivation and I knew that the season wasn’t starting soon. So it was kind of like a downward spiral almost in the beginning. Luckily, after about a month or so, I got out of it and forced myself to start exercising alone even if it’s not as fun as playing soccer with your team.”

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Castiglioni was reunited with his teammates and friends Sunday when the summer season of the Charm City Soccer League began at Patterson Park in Baltimore. The league is one of several adult recreational sports organizations that are slowly re-offering play to their members.

“I would say that I am very much guardedly optimistic,” said Mike Zerolnick, founder and president of the Charm City Soccer League. “I recognize what the situation is, and I recognize there are risks inherent in getting back out there and in not socially distancing. There’s no question about that. But at the same time, is it reasonable to expect people to go through what we’ve been doing for the past three and four months for an indefinite period of time?”

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While summer camps and programs for youth were permitted to resume operations as early as last month, adult leagues have been more cautious as state and local jurisdictions have eased restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus.

Giovanni Marcantoni, chief executive officer of Volo City, an adult social sports company launched in Baltimore, said executives carefully monitored the re-opening of leagues in cities in San Francisco and Denver before replicating that effort in Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, New York City, Seattle and Washington.

“We think we have an opportunity to provide people with a safe, outdoor activity that’s connecting with people in a safe way,” he said, noting that the company has had to furlough a significant portion of 80 full-time employees nationwide and had enjoyed a 40% increase in membership prior to the outbreak. “It’s not drinking and it’s not doing anything else other than being outside and being healthy. So there was a lot of push internally for the business, but also externally for the community because they have played with folks all year-round, and it was gone. It was just a tough thing.”

Jaymi Dosunmu, who co-owns the Maryland Cornhole Organization with Dale Moran, said the company lost about 90% of its business as corporations and individuals have canceled tournaments this summer. The organization has run two smaller tournaments — one composed of 10 teams of two players each — and Dosunmu said those may be the business models for the near future.

“Those backyard kind of tournaments, we’re now offering that whereas we would never do anything on that small of a scale in the past,” she said. “But now knowing the circumstances, we see that as a possible option if people are interested just to keep some things up and running.”

To limit the spread of the coronavirus and help participants feel comfortable, adult recreational leagues have instituted several safety measures such as temperature checks, sanitizing equipment and mandated face coverings.

Todd Webster, founder of Baltimore Beach Volleyball, said when the organization resumed summer leagues on July 20 at the seven-court Baltimore Beach on Rash Field in Baltimore, it allowed only co-ed fours and doubles teams to play. Six-player teams have been tabled for now.

“We weren’t comfortable with that many people in that square footage,” he said. “So we have voluntarily chosen not to run our sixes programming this year.”

Marcantoni said Volo City, which re-started leagues last week, requires participants to check in on the company’s app to receive wristbands permitting them to play. Zerolnick said the Charm City Soccer League has reminded staff and referees to discourage hugging and high fives after goals are scored and games are won.

Ian Levy, a 30-year-old engineer from Patterson Park, said as well-intentioned as the steps taken by the Charm City Soccer League were, he chose not to return as his wife Ellen is seven months pregnant with a baby girl.

“I love playing sports, and it’s one of the things that give me joy in life. So it’s difficult to make the decision for any reason to not do something that you enjoy that much,” he said. “However, I can’t say that it was a difficult decision because there are certain things that aren’t worth risking, and long-term health is one of them. So in the big picture, it was a pretty easy decision.”

The biggest issue thus far has been mask usage. Marcantoni said the company has written the requirement into the rules of each sport so that those who choose not to wear face coverings risk incurring a penalty at their team’s expense.

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For instance, a mask-less football player who comes into contact with an opponent can be flagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with a second transgression leading to ejection and the team playing with one less player on the field. A soccer player who touches an opponent while not wearing a face covering will give up possession, and the opposing team will get a free kick. Subsequent infractions can lead to yellow and red cards.

“We’re not here to get into an argument,” Marcantoni said. “We’re here to play a game.”

Zerolnick said he was unaware of a Baltimore City mandate requiring face masks in public outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible. He said he will require face coverings during the upcoming weekend’s slate of games.

Aung Arkar, a 35-year-old business analyst from Federal Hill who has been playing with the Charm City Soccer League, said he will not return if he is forced to wear a mask. He said a face covering could lead to heat exhaustion and profuse amounts of sweat dousing a mask to the point of what he described as waterboarding.

“I won’t be able to play 11-a-side soccer with a mask on,” he said. “It will just turn into water, and we won’t be able to breathe through it.”

On the flip side, Wadih Bchara, a 30-year-old laboratory technician from Hampden who has been playing beach volleyball with Volo City for almost two years, said he appreciates the masks and other preventative measures the organization has crafted.

“Many of us are taking this seriously,” he said. “I don’t want to say the risk is absolute zero. But the players I’m playing with are people that I know, and it’s a team that we put together. These are people that I know that are taking it seriously, and everybody from the staff to the other teams that we’ve seen, we’re not congregating closer than six feet. So the risk is pretty low in my opinion.”

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Remembering to avoid physical contact was difficult for Marissa Green. The 26-year-old cosmetologist from Bowie who was a defender for the Towson women’s soccer team from 2013-17 admitted that she almost shook hands with an opponent after a game Sunday with the Charm City Soccer League.

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“That’s the part where it’s just in your mind because you’ve grown up doing that and when you play sports, you know that’s the thing that you do,” she said. “That was a little bit tricky, but I won’t do it in the next game – I hope.”

Castiglioni said the discomfort of wearing a face covering was overshadowed by reacquainting himself with teammates and friends he had not seen in person in at least four months. He said playing soccer “felt normal again.”

“I woke up the next day feeling sore, and that felt good in a weird way,” he said. “It was something that I missed that I just wasn’t getting. It was definitely super encouraging to see everybody again. I think both teams were so happy to be back on the field that it wasn’t a typical game. There was no chippiness between the teams, which sometimes can happen. Everybody was just in a great mood, the players, the refs. It went really well.”

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