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Club, youth leagues ‘treated like businesses’ under new COVID-19 restrictions

If teams, players wear masks and social distance, they can practice just as dance studios, gymnastics centers

Cameron Stone spikes the ball as Club GSL head coach Ben Braga, left, reaches for a block during Club GSL volleyball practice at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Cameron Stone spikes the ball as Club GSL head coach Ben Braga, left, reaches for a block during Club GSL volleyball practice at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SOUTH JORDAN — When Bladen Huntsman heard that his football tournament in St. George was canceled by a new executive order aimed at getting a surge in COVID-19 cases under control, he was so disappointed he went to his room and told his mother he wasn’t going to school if he couldn’t play sports.

The 13-year-old wasn’t being petulant about not being able to play the sport he loves. The game, according to his mom, has become a lifeline to a young man struggling with mental health issues.

“He’s been suicidal, and we’ve been taking him to a new therapist,” said his mom, Brecken Huntsman. “Last night, when this came down, he just went to his room so disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to go to St. George for his football tournament (Ute Conference). He said, ‘If I don’t have sports to look forward to, I’m not going to school.’”

When Gov. Gary Herbert issued a series of new restrictions Sunday night as part of a new emergency declaration meant to ease the pressure on Utah’s hospitals and health care workers, it included a two-week moratorium on youth and recreational sports, as well as all high school-sanctioned sports and activities, except the prep football playoffs.

For thousands of club and youth leagues, coaches and athletes like Bladen, the news was devastating. But by Monday afternoon, there was a some good news. While games, tournaments and events were canceled for the next two weeks, the Utah Department of Health said club programs, including club volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, gyms and dance studios could all operate if “customers” wear masks the entire time and social distance.

Face mask requirement signs are posted in Sport City as Club GSL practices volleyball in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Face mask requirement signs are posted in Sport City as Club GSL practices volleyball in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Almost immediately after Herbert’s Sunday night news conference, parents and coaches began trying to unravel exactly what the new rules meant to sports that are essentially independent businesses and do not fall under the management of Utah High School Activities Association or any public school.

For Warren Van Schalkwyk, the owner of GSL Volleyball Club, the news seemed to mean economic hardship might return to his club volleyball business.

“I’m not a political activist or person, but I’m starting to get engaged,” he said. “I can survive two weeks, but last time two weeks turned into two months. I have 45 employees and over 300 kids that this impacts. I want to get in front of someone and gently point that out.”

Van Schalkwyk wondered why youth, club and all high school sports and activities besides football were asked to “take a two-week pause” but gyms, bars and restaurants were still open for business.

“I would hope and pray that they had somebody representing youth sports at the table, for two reasons,” he said. “It is a business. Youth sports is its own economy, a big economy, and I’m just one club. But there are thousands of people who work in youth sports. ... So there is the business side of it, but so is the fact that there are mental health and social ramifications of taking away youth sports.

“These are big decisions when you force kids to stay home or make it so they can’t socially interact. You can’t even invite a friend over to your house to play video games.”

Eli Stark and Sean Schwenke practice volleyball with Club GSL at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Eli Stark and Sean Schwenke practice volleyball with Club GSL at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After Sunday night’s announcement, there was some clarification from the Utah Department of Health that has delivered good news to families like Huntsman’s and businesses like Club GSL. It seemed clear that club and youth leagues would be able to hold practices and workouts if they could ensure participants wore masks and maintained social distance.

The Utah Department of Health told the Deseret News private club teams and programs will be treated as businesses. Officials were in the process of updating the state’s coronavirus website with the new information.

Private businesses such as a dance studios, gymnastics studios, volleyball gym/clubs, indoor soccer areas, karate studios, fitness gyms, etc. must follow the requirements for businesses. This means they are allowed to hold classes and training sessions if all participants are wearing masks and maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet between participants. They must also post signage about COVID-19 symptoms and masking and physical distancing requirements.

Games, tournaments, recitals and other gatherings where masks and physical distancing requirements cannot be achieved are not allowed at this time.

That is a huge reprieve for club programs, many that were going to hold tryouts for girls club teams this week. About 1,510 boys play club volleyball and more than 7,300 girls, according to Mike Daniel who runs Club 80. Boys volleyball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, and it is currently not sanctioned by Utah high schools.

“Some clubs have already canceled (tryouts), and the rest of us are trying to decide if we postpone or continue,” he said. “The information we get is not rock-solid. It’s confusing, and one county says one thing and another county says something else. We’re still gathering information.”

Mason Hawes, right, practices volleyball with Club GSL at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Mason Hawes, right, practices volleyball with Club GSL at Sport City in Draper on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Huntsman said people may see youth sports as peripheral, but she, as a single mom of five, relies on her salary as a coach to support her children, and she’s seen firsthand the healing power of getting young people struggling with mental health issues involved in athletics.

“I know for a fact that it keeps these kids alive,” she said. ”I need a way to provide for my family, and I need something to help get my kids out of bed every day. I am a mask wearer. I do follow all of the rules. I do care, but I also think there needs to be some sort of balance. These kids and their emotional health has to be somewhere on the spectrum.”

Herbert offered some clarification at his Monday press conference, although the information about club sports and dance studios came several hours later.

Collegiate sports and high school football playoffs were exempted from the moratorium. Herbert said each participant can bring two fans to attend the game in person. They must wear masks and maintain social distance, however. The only games remaining are semifinals and state championship games for football.

Herbert said the other high school sports will be put on hold for two weeks “to see if we can get our testing protocols in place, and see if we can allow other activities to happen this winter as we move back indoors and close quarters.”

“Basketball comes to mind, volleyball, other things that might happen indoors, other activities, theater, drama, music, band, those things we’re going to take a close look at and put in place protocols after two weeks to make sure that we have proper testing and oversight so those, we hope, can continue,” Herbert said.

Tryouts for winter sports like wrestling and basketball were postponed for high schools on Monday. Some teams were scheduled to play the week after Thanksgiving, but that will likely change.

Contributing: Ashley Imlay