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‘High-risk’ youth sports skirt Mass. coronavirus rules to compete

Fans wearing masks watched as Massachusetts Public/Catholic players clashed with Massachusetts Prep players along the boards during a game at Cyclones Arena in Hudson, N.H.
Fans wearing masks watched as Massachusetts Public/Catholic players clashed with Massachusetts Prep players along the boards during a game at Cyclones Arena in Hudson, N.H.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Earlier this summer, the popular MT Elite Ducks youth basketball club on the South Shore faced the prospect of great disappointment: Massachusetts banned games and tournaments for youth sports deemed high-risk for spreading coronavirus — including basketball.

So the club’s director, Dan Norton, got creative. He moved the games and tournaments to New Hampshire, where the events are allowed.

“If the parents felt like this was something that would benefit their children, we wanted to offer it to them,” said Norton, who is directing about 300 kids from fourth through 12th grade in basketball this summer.

Competing out of state has become a common workaround for many youth sports teams, despite growing concerns that the virus may be spreading more rapidly in Massachusetts. Governor Charlie Baker instituted a crackdown last Friday on large gatherings, amid reports of packed parties, weddings, and backyard gatherings. And an increasing number of Massachusetts school districts are opting not to reopen in a few weeks, citing concerns about safety.

Under Massachusetts rules, competitions are allowed in youth sports considered low to moderate risk for coronavirus transmission, including baseball, golf, track and field, running, and volleyball. But games and scrimmages are prohibited in basketball, ice hockey, football, wrestling, lacrosse, and several others in which the rules say there’s a “high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.” Those high-risk sports are only allowed to conduct no-contact workouts and drills.

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The rules are silent about teams traveling out of state to skirt those limits. The Baker administration declined to respond to questions about the practice, and whether its public health surveillance system has been able to trace additional infections to the competitions.

But a spokeswoman for the state health department noted in an e-mail that the youth sports rules were drafted after consultations with public health experts, athletic organizations, and others. The e-mail also noted that youth sports leaders are “responsible for following all guidelines and creating a safe environment for participants.” The rules don’t say whether the teams must follow the guidelines if they travel out of state, but all Massachusetts residents must quarantine or produce a negative COVID-19 test if returning from a state with higher infection rates. According to the state’s COVID-19 travel advisory, all New England states except Rhode Island are currently exempt from the quarantine and testing requirement.

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In this gray zone, parents are navigating a complicated set of considerations, sorting out anxieties about children’s safety versus their opportunity for socialization and physical activity.

Roughly 90 percent of MT Elite Ducks parents have signed their kids up for out-of-state play, Norton said. The teams are “taking all the precautions,” sanitizing the ball at every break, and referees, parents, coaches, and players on the bench are wearing masks. (Players on the court are not.)

“It’s unconventional, I understand that,” Norton said. “But we are not doing anything sneaky. We are not trying to hide it.”

Some parents see moving games out of state as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state rules.

“The rules are there for a reason, and we shouldn’t be looking for loopholes around them,” said Raymond Fisman, a Brookline parent who pulled his 10-year-old son out of summer basketball after learning about out-of-state games.

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“There is no way we’re sending him to practice with people who are going up to New Hampshire,” Fisman said. “I don’t even feel very comfortable with socially distanced practices.”

Other parents, interviewed as they picked up their children from an ASA Hoops basketball camp in Newton recently, said they were trying to balance competing priorities.

ASA Hoops is only running no-contact drills; children are not playing games. But it’s been advertising tryouts for fall competition, with a note that if games are still banned in Massachusetts in a few weeks, it too may take its games on the road.

“We’re really happy to have them participating again. We’re conscious of safety, but’s it’s important to have this, especially because they were isolated for so long,” said Kathy, who picked her sons up from the Newton camp. She declined to give her last name because she is sending her 12-year-old son to boarding school in New Hampshire in the fall so he will be able to play hockey, and they haven’t yet broken the news to his friends.

Infectious disease experts say the risk of infections rises in high-contact sports competitions played indoors with less fresh air, such as basketball and hockey, compared to those played outdoors and with less contact.

But there are trade-offs, they said.

“Running up and down a basketball court indoors or on the sidelines, that would not be a good situation in terms of transmission,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

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“But we don’t want to [stop] a whole generation, millions of kids . . . from doing everything that’s active, because the consequences of that could be devastating,” Mina said.

Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, said a lack of scientific studies comparing COVID-19 transmission among various sports means leaders have to use the best evidence they have and common sense.

“There are no right and wrong answers for this disease. It’s about how much risk you think is acceptable and that’s different for every individual,” Doron said.

But, she said, parents and team leaders should consider the larger consequences of their decisions, and the potential risks for society as a whole.

“Is it about the safety of the individual players and their parents, or the potential of those games for contributing to rising [infection] rates in the state?” Doron said.

David Geaslen, owner of 3Step Sports in Wilmington, a company that organizes youth sporting events in 34 states, said Massachusetts’ rules for competition during the pandemic are among the strictest in the country. He called them “misguided,” given that most families can drive a short distance out of state to circumvent them. He also said his organization is strictly enforcing safety at events, with masks for everyone except during play, and frequent sanitizing.

“Borders aren’t going to stop things,” Geaslen said. “Youth sports operators need to make the environment as safe as they can. It’s not perfect. Then the parent decides if they want their kid to participate or not.”

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Fifteen-year-old Carolyn Durand and her family decided to participate, though with precautions. Durand, a rising sophomore at Canton High School, won the opportunity to compete in a Hockey Night in Boston showcase for the first time after skating in a tryout in July.

The prestigious series of tournaments, which give participants the chance to skate in front of college coaches and scouts, were moved to New Hampshire with strict new rules; each player, for example, can invite just one parent or other fan to attend.

When Durand received the e-mail inviting her to the August showcase, her excitement mixed with worry.

Durand has been visiting one set of grandparents to help out, and her other grandmother lives with the teen and her family. She wanted to skate, but she wanted to keep her family safe. After discussing it with her family, Durand decided she would play in the showcase and avoid contact with her grandparents for several weeks after.

“There was definitely a little bit of hesitation,” Durand said, but she’s feeling increasingly confident they made the right call.

“Overall, my parents were really happy, too.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Jenna Ciccotelli can be reached at jenna.ciccotelli@globe.com.