Dangers of COVID-19 too steep to risk returning to the field, pool or court in September

I always look forward to high school football season.

Nothing beats a Friday night under the lights, watching hundreds of townsfolk rally behind the local team, the sounds of parents cheering for their kids and young people rooting for their classmates echoing in the crisp air.

Professional and college sports are essential parts of our culture and I miss them too, but few things are more American — and bind more communities together — than high school football.Ryan Clarke

If we want this experience back the way it used to be before the pandemic, with community members young and old alive and in attendance, it is going to take a major sacrifice. Not just the sacrifices necessary for slowing the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask in public and social distancing, but a total sacrifice of the season.

No games or practices should happen this fall.

Yes, that includes high school football, soccer, volleyball, water polo and cross-country.

That idea is hard for many to stomach. I get it. There are young people who've worked for years just to earn a spot on those varsity squads, and they deserve a chance to perform in front of their families. The lessons learned through sports are crucial to a young person's development and losing an opportunity to strengthen lifelong friendships is a tragedy.

Coaches always tell their players that playing on a high school sports team is a privilege. I fully agree with that sentiment, and I think the same is true for those watching from the stands and sidelines. Sports are a sign of a functioning society coming together around the beauty of athletic competition. If you want the truth, we haven't earned the privilege of enjoying them.

People are still arguing about the efficacy of wearing a mask. Seriously? You want high school football to come back with kids huddling together and making constant contact on the field, and you're not willing to make the minimal effort required to protect your neighbors from a deadly respiratory pandemic?

Every reputable public health expert agrees that face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19. That shouldn't be a debate, but thanks to certain politicians and misinformation on the internet, it is.

High school sports could have been safe if we as a society drowned out that nonsense and made an effort to manage the pandemic up to this point. There might not have been fans in the stands on Friday nights, but teams could've competed and memories would have been made under a safe system that prevents spread among teammates and coaches.

Thanks to a noisy minority of people who still choose not to wear a mask or social distance because of imagined tyranny from the government or media or whoever they choose as their bogeyman, we are far beyond the point of being able to return to play.

With cases rising significantly across Oregon, we're more than likely headed for a rollback of the reopening we all fought so hard to earn. We quarantined for months on end to get here, and now we're going backward because too many are choosing to be selfish, ignorant or both.

Take the Newberg club baseball team as an example of what sports looks like in our current predicament. They did everything they could to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They social distanced, split into smaller workout groups, wore face coverings, temperature tested every day and sanitized every used baseball. Coach Trey Watt went out of his way to protect his players, and the team should be commended for its collective effort.

Still, Watt and seven players contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, effectively ending their season.

It didn't happen because they got too close to somebody on the field, at least according to contact tracers. It happened because of community spread, because Watt or one of his players encountered someone in their day-to-day life who either didn't take the pandemic seriously or who was an unknowing victim of someone else not taking it seriously.

Newberg baseball's attempt at a summer season is over. In the aftermath, Watt proposed a "bubble" approach to high school sports in the fall to try and isolate student-athletes and protect them from the virus. Professional sports leagues like the NBA and MLS have done this with their players and, so far, it's proven effective at isolating and containing the disease while returning to play.

While it's a noble idea and one that could work in theory, it's hard to imagine a bubble being possible for a high school sports team. Players can't be isolated from the outside world in hotels the way professional athletes have been in Orlando. It's not financially possible for most high schools to pay for such lodging.

There is no way of knowing how responsible the family members or friends of the high school athletes are being about the pandemic. Is the wide receiver going to parties at friends' houses with minimal social distancing? Is the volleyball player's father an anti-masker who takes medical advice from YouTube conspiracies rather than public health experts? You could have an entire team of student-athletes and coaches committed to protecting themselves, and it still wouldn't be enough under current circumstances.

It's not just about protecting the athletes, either. Some might point to the low mortality rates among young people who contract COVID-19, how so few exhibit symptoms and many recover without issue. But those young people have parents, grandparents, teachers and coaches who are at far greater risk. Some teens have preexisting conditions, too, and are at just as high a risk as their older counterparts.

As things currently stand, high school sports in the fall with or without fans will kill people. Full practices are supposed to start next month and the virus is far from under control in our state, let alone the country.

At the very least, Oregon should push fall sports to the spring and find a way to either work spring sports around them or push baseball, softball and other spring activities to the summer. Until we have a reliable vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, or we decide to actually take public health advice and slow the spread to negligible levels, it's just not safe to return to the gridiron, volleyball court, pool or soccer field.

I hate it just as much as you do, but this is where we are. If we successfully flatten the curve by the fall, maybe we can have winter sports like basketball. Maybe Newberg wrestling can defend its state championship. But I'm not holding my breath.

I am wearing a mask, though, and you should too.

Ryan Clarke is a reporter at the Newberg Graphic newspaper.

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