As the province moves to lift a few COVID-19 restrictions this weekend, youth sports are still operating under strict pandemic protocols.
Even as cases continue to rise, with Ontario hitting new record highs regularly, many parents say they feel extremely safe letting their kids participate in the sports they love thanks to extensive safety protocols.
Rosie has two daughters in hockey and says they’re adjusting well to the various changes to their routine.
“My daughters, they like rules to be honest with you. So as long as it’s clear information, they are following it very well,” she says. “We’ve had to adapt in terms of the rules changing over time because of the different stages in the province, which has been confusing for them. So there have been lots of discussions about why we’ve had to change from different phases…but they’re adapting very well.”
Currently, most hockey arenas require COVID waivers prior to practice, children are only allowed inside arenas 15 minutes beforehand, there is reduced capacity in dressing rooms and they have clearly marked, socially distanced spots for each player. Players are also required to exit the arena 15 minutes after practice and parents are not allowed in the stands.
“We’ve had to change from having full team practices for my older daughter to having just half the team. So there’s 10 people on the ice, including nine players and a coach. There’s a trainer that watches from a distance, usually outside the arena, through a door and all the parents are outside in the parking lot,” adds Rosie.
While all minor hockey league games in Ontario are currently cancelled, Rosie says her daughters are glad to get some ice time, even though they miss their friends and the social aspect of the game.
“They’re very pleased to be able to have their favourite games accessible to them during this time where everything is very challenging. They’re happy to have a few minutes a week when they’re able to have a little bit of normalcy in terms of getting some exercise and playing a game that we love,” she says. “[But] on the ice, there’s [only] a few minutes where the girls are able to actually yell at each other and have some fun and be kids again. Then they go back to the regimented protocols,” she says.
Christine Garcia’s two daughters are competitive cheerleaders and says things look very different for them this year as well.
“[In March] the cheerleading world just ended for them immediately with no warning whatsoever. They had their world just ripped away from them,” she says.
Thereafter training went virtual until June, when in-person practice began again.
Along with COVID screening prior to practice, physical distancing and regular sanitizing at the gym, they’ve also modified their practice routines to avoid contact.
“Other than dancing and tumbling, we’re not stunting. That’s been paused for the time being,” she says, adding that she’s thrilled with the way things are being handled.
“I think they’re handling it as best as can be expected. They’re doing everything they can to just keep us moving forward,” she says.
Unlike hockey, cheerleading competitions are still taking place, but will be conducted virtually. Participants have to record and submit videos for judging and results will be communicated virtually as well.
Despite the drastic changes, Christine also says getting back to cheerleading has helped bring back a sense of normalcy in their lives.
“[The girls] are happy to be back in their second home and exercising and keeping their mental health alive. And it’s excellent to see them happy,” says Christine.
Other parents CityNews spoke to say there are also strict protocols in youth soccer and practice is still being conducted outdoors. Waivers are required to attend practice and physical distancing is required on the pitch, along with masking and sanitizing as necessary.
Both Rosie and Christine say there have been no cases of COVID-19 on their daughters’ teams.
However, a recent post on Reddit by an anonymous parent led to much discussion about how some families may be putting health secondary to sports.
In the post, the parent says there have been cases of COVID-19 on two sports teams their kids play on and other parents are not taking the virus seriously. They add that infected players are still attending practices because parents are afraid their training will suffer and some are “treating this like a chicken-pox party.”
CityNews could not contact the poster to verify their account, but sports leagues say health and safety are top priority.
Executive Director of The Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) Ian Taylor says there should be no fear of missing out this year.
“We’re not running any leagues this year, we’re playing a modified program of three-on-three and four-on-four, we don’t have stats and standings,” he says. “We’re not attending tournaments, we’re not playing in big games, for the older players we’re not playing in front of scouts right now — missing a practice is not going to end the world.”
Taylor says the goal right now is to simply get participants back on the ice in a safe manner and they’re aiming to eliminate the idea of “falling behind” if a child has to skip a few sessions due to illness.
“We also recognize the value of activity and athletics. We’re also hearing more and more [about] the mental health side of things. Allowing young people to engage with their peers, socialize and all those other benefits that come with team sports. So we’re promoting that, we’re communicating that, we’re pushing that all the time,” he says.
The OMHA is following a set of guidelines based on provincial recommendations as well as those set out by the Ontario Hockey Federation.
“Fortunately we haven’t had a lot, in terms of shutting down a team. But there have been a few situations, especially with multiple siblings in the family participating,” says Taylor, adding that associations conducting practices are asked to track the case and if necessary, entire teams are required to quarantine and pause activities for 14 days.
Taylor says he encourages everyone to take a long-term view of the situation and hopes that following all the strict protocols will ultimately pay off and things will get back to normal sooner rather than later.
“We’ll get there — I guess that’s my pep talk. If we all hang in there together, we’ll get there collectively,” he says.
Meanwhile, as restrictions begin to ease again across the province, Rosie hopes that may mean a gradual return to regular ice time instead of the current situation, which she finds too limited.
“In terms of the difference between allowing our full team on the ice versus half the team, it seems very extreme considering that safety on the ice is very similar [in both cases] because the girls are still spaced out. It’s a huge space on the ice for this number of people,” she says, adding that they also have to book the ice and pay twice for a single team to practice.
While she understands the need for safety protocols, Rosie says they should be informed by the realities on the ice.
“I really would love for the protocols that the government is implementing to be more logical, to be quite frank. We live in Peel and there’s been no cases in our league. So it would be very helpful to have clear protocols that are based on science and evidence as opposed to what I feel like we’re seeing now, which is based more on anxiety,” she says.
CityNews reached out to the province about whether restrictions will be eased specifically for youth sports under its new COVID-19 Response Framework and was directed to the broader proposed measures for sports and recreational fitness.
As per the plan (pictured below), when the province moves into the ‘restrict (orange) level,’ spectators will still not be permitted but an exemption has been made for parents or guardians to supervise children.
The province announced earlier this week that Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region will be able to move into the ‘restrict’ level of the new plan as of Saturday and Toronto will follow a week later on Nov. 14.