Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner was joined by two Olympic gold medalists in calling for the state of California and Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow youth sports activities to fully reopen immediately, saying the benefits to children far outweigh any limited health risks.
Wagner led the conference on Oct. 19 at Tustin Sports Park, where a gathering of Orange County sports luminaries and officials addressed the audience about the consequences of keeping youth sports closed.
“If you’ve got kids at home, if you had kids, if you’re just watching what’s going on in our society, our children learn enormous amounts about themselves, about the world, about competition [from sports],” Wagner told the audience.
“They learn how to win. More importantly, they often learn to lose. They learn to push themselves, they learn to work as a team, and none of that learning is getting done today, because of the governor’s erratic COVID response.”
Wagner said young people who play sports have been “suffering” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet their issues have not been addressed by the state.
“There’s another group that’s been suffering, and there’s another component of this closed life that we need to focus on and are doing today, and that’s our youth sports,” Wagner said.
“The governor has been extraordinarily erratic in his response to COVID. There isn’t a comprehensive plan, and there hasn’t been a series of progressive steps towards getting California reopened.”
In August, the state released guidelines for all youth sports programs “to support a safe environment for players, coaches and trainers, families, spectators, event/program/facility managers, workers, and volunteers” in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The guidelines require the young athletes to remain six feet apart, and limit tournaments, events, and competitions, citing Centers for Disease Control and Transmission recommendations.
The supervisor noted that since California is one of the last states to allow youth sports to reopen, families are often traveling to other states in order to allow their children to compete.
“Families must travel out of state to give their kids a shot at playing or scholarship opportunities. Keeping youth out of sports widens the opportunity gap for our disadvantaged communities,” according to a statement released by Wagner.
Olympic gold medal-winner Brian Goodell, who is the mayor of Mission Viejo, also spoke at the sports park. Goodell won his gold medals in 1976, in the 400-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle swimming events.
“It’s time to open up for competition. We shouldn’t have to send our youth to Arizona to compete. And that’s what’s happening today. They’re going to Arizona, and they’re competing safely,” Goodell told the audience.
“We have wonderful protocols in place to keep everybody safe at our facilities. We have proper sanitation, we have proper social distancing, and I think a very respectful and mature acting population that can do what’s necessary to keep everyone safe.”
Jessica Hardy Meichtry—who won two medals at the 2012 Olympics in London, including a gold for swimming in the medley relay—spoke about how important youth sports are in keeping kids out of trouble and providing a real outlet in times of frustration.
“No one’s gone through [a pandemic] in their lifetime on this planet, and to not offer sports in a safe environment is doing a big disservice to our population.,” Meichtry said.
She said it’s really “important for our kids to have an outlet” like sports, especially when a significant portion of the population may be “struggling with mental health issues during COVID.”
Meichtry added that sports kept her out of trouble when she was growing up by providing an outlet for the energy, excitement, and pent-up frustration that came with her normal childhood experiences.
“This is such a unique experience for all of us,” she said.
Wagner discussed the safety protocols that would be imposed on youth sports when they reopen, including staggered schedules between games played, parents wearing masks (and children where applicable), physical distancing, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, signing waivers, and having entry-only and exit-only openings onto the field.
Copies of “Keeping Our Kids Active: The Value of Youth Sports,” a 27-page information brochure authored by Anaheim Ducks medical director Dr. Kenton Fibel, were handed out during the conference.
The pamphlet emphasizes the importance of youth sports to the public, discusses the low risk of COVID-19 to young people, and offers a phased approach for reopening.
In the brochure, Fibel states that though there is a need to recognize that the risk to children is not zero, “if we take appropriate steps and proceed thoughtfully, we can allow our youth to enjoy the benefits of physical activity, skill development, and all that they gain from resuming youth sports without significant risk to their health.”
“In the medical literature we have studies that show that injured athletes suffer from increased rates of depression and anxiety when they are unable to play their sport,” Fibel writes.
“Now we know that this is a much different situation but we can expect similar responses in athletes who are dealing with the lack of training and the uncertainty that the COVID-19 crisis has created.”
Wagner encouraged viewers to sign a petition he helped create that puts pressure on Newsom to reopen California.
“Open CAL Now is about getting the state open and back to as close to normal as we possibly can, as quickly as we can, in part because we know the science says we can,” Wagner said.
“The science says our kids are thankfully very resistant to this disease, they don’t get it as quickly, they don’t get it as harshly, and they don’t spread it as much.”
Other speakers at the event included Tustin Mayor Allan Bernstein; Bernie Towers, the president of Coast Soccer League; Johnny Johnson, the president of Blue Buoy Swim School; Justin Roswell, the vice president of Baseball Factory; and Bob Turner, president of Cal South youth soccer.