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Youth sports pause saddens advocates still seeking ways to play
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Youth sports pause saddens advocates still seeking ways to play

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When Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that indoor youth sports would go on a four-week pause starting Saturday, Holly Tchida started looking to the sky for help.

“For the first time ever, we’re hoping for a brutally cold spell here so we can freeze these ponds and get these outdoor rinks flooded and be able to go skate,” she said. “I mean, I want subzero Thanksgiving is what I’m hoping for. I never thought I would say that.”

Walz’ announcement means community center and school gyms and indoor hockey rinks will be off-limits until at least the week before Christmas for the tens of thousands of children playing on youth teams in basketball, hockey and other sports programs across the state.

It also continues months of piecemeal planning by government leaders, going back to the shutdown that began last March, over how to safely let children play sports during a pandemic.

For Tchida, a member of the Chaska/Chanhassen Hockey Association’s COVID planning team, it means its 796 registered players, including her son and daughter, have to pause their seasons, again.

“Kids are so resilient, right? So they were fine with wearing masks in and out, they were fine coming to the rink fully dressed, except for putting your skates on and going onto the ice and having to leave right away,” Tchida said. “We realized, ‘OK, we’re still skating.’ Now they don’t have that anymore. That was a big disappointment this morning to have to tell my kids that.”

Rick Hilger, president of the St. Paul Boys Basketball Association, is also a hospital medicine physician with Health Partners at Regions Hospital who works with COVID patients. He said Walz’ decision was the right one, but that it can’t be the end of the discussion.

“The last few weeks what we have seen in the health care community, this is even different than in May. The health care system is really being stretched,” Hilger said. “So from the other side of it, I think there is a strong argument that having these youth tournaments where there is teams from many different communities and the parents and kids are intermixing in gymnasiums and hockey rinks and such, I think we have gotten to the point where there’s strong evidence that that’s not the right thing to do.

“But I think what the state leaders need to figure out is, is there a balance somewhere in there where kids could still practice, get into gyms with their neighbors and their peers within their own community without the games and the tournaments which are just higher risk of spreading the virus between communities?”

Youth association leaders said one of the hardest parts of this decision is that they have worked for months to create stringent COVID preparedness policies that followed MDH and CDC guidelines, and even went beyond those recommendations in an attempt to keep playing.

Tom Meckey, the president of the Mpls Lakers Youth Traveling Basketball Program, said he leaned on board members with careers in medicine to create a thorough preparedness plan for the 19 youth basketball teams he oversees.

Despite those effort to follow safety protocols, the metrics changed the past two weeks.

“Back in the spring and summer, as a board, we were looking through the lens of, ‘Hey we have to keep our kids safe,’ ” Meckey said. “Now the lens that we’re looking through is it’s not just about our kids, it’s about the people our kids come into contact with.”

Youth sports advocates agreed that even if kids are willing and able to adapt to another shutdown, the state must renew focus on keeping children active and engaged through winter.

“We know short term right now that the incidents of anxiety and depression in kids and teenagers is increasing,” Hilger said. “We don’t know long term how this is going to impact the development of this cohort of children. But as a society we do need to somehow come together with a common purpose and it has been said ad nauseam, but wear a mask, stay six feet apart.”

For the time being, Meckey’s sixth-graders are willing to do their part. At what few practices his team has had, he said, “I have always taken a minute to just talk to the boys and say, ‘Hey, how are you guys feeling about everything?’ ”

Meckey added his players “know what’s going on. One thing that my son said to me, he said, ‘Look, dad, I’m fine. I don’t want to spread COVID and pass it to like you or mom or nana or papa.’ He’s like, ‘I would feel worse about that then I would about missing my season.’ ”

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