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Montefiore in the News
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Montefiore in the News

June 22, 2020

Carl Slutz and the rest of the Golden Years Senior Softball League are waiting to hear those magical words in Palm Beach County, Fla.: “Play ball.”

The parks are open, but league play was delayed as they waited for permission to play. So Slutz’s 10-person crew has been holding batting practice at a Boca Raton park a couple times a week, getting ready for games, which are scheduled to start soon. Everyone takes some swings. Some wear a mask. They store their gym bags and take refuge from the heat in two dugouts rather than one to allow for social distancing.

“Some people are scared to come out of their houses,” Slutz, 85, said in a recent interview. “I’m more of an optimist. My position is, if you are not near someone, you have nothing to fear.”

All across the country, even in the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and those where new cases are rising, the reawakening is underway, for better or for worse.

People are getting haircuts, sitting at restaurants — often at outdoor tables — and they are trying to figure out whether it is safe for recreational activities at a time of year that usually brings a cascade of beach volleyball, Frisbee, twilight tennis, pickleball, youth sports and barbecue sports. Safe or not, they are happening.

Graham Gerhart, a member of California Burrito Ultimate, a San Diego Frisbee club, said his teammates had begun to chuck their disks in the park. In Seattle, Jude LaRene, who runs DiscNW, another Ultimate club, said players had begun informally to do drills in small groups.

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In Tucson, Ariz., Kare Williams, who owns CrossFit Milo, said classes that now allow only nine students, rather than 15 to 20, regularly fill up. A group of women holds pickleball matches every morning in Colorado Springs.

A woman in Boca Raton, Fla., playing pickleball, which is also being regularly played in Colorado Springs.Credit...Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, via Associated Press

“You just don’t know what is right and what is wrong,” said David Stothoff, a contractor from Pittstown, N.J., whose daughter is a standout volleyball player who would normally be practicing hard with her club team this summer. “I know precautions and safety measures to keep our employees safe, but it’s much different from the high school sports standpoint. They are shoulder-to-shoulder at times and face-to-face at the net. The distance is supposed to be six feet in casual conversation, but I’d think during exertion that has to be increased. How that happens, I don’t know.”

No one really does, not even Dr. Shmuel Shoham, an infectious diseases specialist with Johns Hopkins University. But he is trying to apply rationality to questions of sports and safety.

“You are trying to balance the physical and mental health benefits that sports and exercise bring with the potential risk,” Shoham said. And it’s not an insolvable problem with intractable rules.

With infection rates still rising in more than 20 states, Shoham has divided sports into three categories: safe, problematic and somewhere in between.

Ones that he views as really safe, provided you are not on top of someone else, include solo endurance sports like running and cycling; tennis, because the net serves as a divider; and golf (but don’t share a set of clubs).

“And Frisbee has got to be really safe,” he said.

A man throwing a Frisbee in Vermont. An infectious diseases expert at Johns Hopkins considers it to be among the safest activities amid the pandemic.Credit...Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer, via Associated Press

In problem sports, close contact is endemic to the traditional form of the activity: wrestling, indoor basketball and probably soccer for the time being are some examples.

And then there are the sports in the middle, which require some thought and adjustment.

Softball and baseball probably work with a lot of hand cleaning if people are using the same bat. And don’t crowd together on the bench.

Some versions of volleyball are likely OK. And maybe, under certain circumstances, that three-on-three pickup basketball game at the park isn’t too risky, if you know who you are playing with and all the players have been healthy and limiting their exposure. But not everyone in the doctor’s field necessarily agrees with that.

“Pickup basketball, that is part of New York, and I don’t mean to sound like I am trying to get in the way of everyone’s fun,” said Dr. Theresa Madaline, a health care epidemiologist with the Bronx-based Montefiore Health System. “I played basketball, and you spend a lot of time running into people and trying to steal the ball. That amount of close contact is problematic. There is risk there.”

Indeed, there is risk nearly everywhere, but managing it and being able to play the summer games Americans enjoy can be done in certain circumstances.

Get in the Pool

Shoham asked an infection control specialist at Johns Hopkins how she felt about swimming. She told him she had been taking her children to the community pool in their Baltimore neighborhood nearly every day.

 “There is chlorine everywhere,” he said.

The chlorine kills bacteria and seemingly the virus, so the biggest risk is probably a crowded locker room, he said. And any pool should be cleaning handrails on the pool deck and other surfaces throughout the day.

Madaline said a problem could arise in a pool if it got too crowded and children were climbing on top of one another, but if a swim team wanted to hold training and the swimmers could keep their distance, then swimming should be fine.

Can My Child Attend Practice?

In some areas of the country where infection rates are low, youth sports have returned. This month, Maryland gave the go-ahead for outdoor high school sports training to resume.

Shoham said the key was to keep things local. If people from a community with few infections want to set up a practice, the risk may be low.

Madaline said practicing with older children is most likely safer than with younger ones because they are better at following instructions about social distancing. The important thing for now, she said, is to modify the way the game is played. If it’s soccer or lacrosse or another contact sport, a coach can organize dribbling and running and shooting drills where there is no contact.

Shoham had this idea for baseball and softball: Either ban leading off a base or have the teams agree that the runner on first can take a reasonable lead but the first baseman cannot hold the runner on. That limits their proximity.

Also, at this point, destination tournaments, in which dozens of youth teams from multiple states gather for three days for competition, should not happen, he said.

Play on the Beach

Gerhart, from the Frisbee club, said members of the Facebook group he belongs to have begun to set up small beach volleyball games in San Diego, despite rules that are supposed to prohibit them.

While Shoham is firmly against an indoor six-on-six volleyball game, two-on-two or three-on-three on the beach is doable. “That’s better,” he said.

As for the other beach sports, or any game in which there is shared equipment, like a shuttlecock in badminton or a cornhole beanbag, participants should wash their hands and clean everything when they are done.

A volleyball game in Huntington Beach, Calif., in April. A game with two or three people per team would be safer than one with six on each side.Credit...Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Careful About the Gym

“The more people you have in a small area, the riskier it is,” Madaline said.

Gym owners across the country are well aware of that, and the responsible ones are cutting capacity and cleaning relentlessly. Williams, the CrossFit owner in Arizona, said her facility uses separate doors for entering and exiting so people do not pass each other. The building also has 25-foot ceilings and large doors they keep open to increase ventilation, and each member receives wipes and a spray bottle and is required to clean the area and the equipment they used when classes end.

That won’t completely eliminate risk, but it can help.

“The gyms are a challenge,” Shoham said. “It’s got to be kept really clean. I’m not here to destroy the gym economy. I would be a little more nervous.”