On June 1, roughly 20 kids showed up at a camp at Heritage Isles in New Tampa.
Two weeks later, a similarly-sized group was scheduled to begin camp at the Seven Oaks Community Club in Wesley Chapel.
PROtential Sports owner Nyree Bland could finally breathe again.
“I am grateful to be opened again. It’s good to be back,” says Bland who, along with her husband (and former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver) Tony, has been running sports camps locally for 17 years.
For a while, Bland was unsure if she would be able to host camps again in 2020. PROtential after-school camps were canceled when school was (back in March), and summer activities were in doubt right up until Gov. Ron DeSantis ended all restrictions on youth activities for the state on May 22.
“The data is pretty clear that, for whatever reason, kids don’t seem to get infected at the same rates that some other adults get infected,” DeSantis said when making the announcement.
Summer camps and sports leagues are ready to go. There will be strict new CDC guidelines to follow, such as cleaning and social distancing protocols.
How that works out, however, remains to be seen, as anyone who has ever coached a large group of 9-year-olds can attest.
Keith Wiley, the Pasco County director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, says his department is working closely with the 30 or so co-sponsored groups they partner with to determine the best and safest way forward.
Although DeSantis specifically said the state would not “be instituting a lot of rules” and would “trust parents to be able to make decisions in conjunction with physicians,” Wiley says that all groups hosting youth sports leagues in Pasco County will be required to supply a safe play plan to the county that strictly adheres to CDC guidelines.
Although parks and fields are open for walk-up play by the general public, co-sponsored leagues can only return once those plans have been approved by the county.
According to the CDC, the “lowest risk” of Covid-19 spreading is during skill-building drills and conditioning, with team-based practices considered a “higher risk.”
Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area is considered “even more risk,” while full competition between teams from different geographic areas is considered the “highest risk.”
Equipment like bats, balls, pads and helmets will also require disinfecting they had probably not received in previous years. Counselors and coaches should wear masks, according to the CDC.
Requiring groups to ponder the new normal and submit a plan was a no-brainer.
“Until you start to think it through and visualize what practices or games will look like, it’s difficult,” Wiley says. “We didn’t want groups running out there and figuring it out on the fly.”
Considering that the public’s feelings on masks isn’t unanimous, Wiley is hoping the community can come together to follow the rules for the sake of the 5,000 or so children that typically participate in youth sports across Pasco County. Keeping parents from hovering at practices and games will be a challenge as well.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to police and enforce,” Wiley says. “So far, however, we’ve had a few conversations with our 30 co-sponsored groups, and they have all been positive. We haven’t had to twist any arms.”
As for the popular county-sponsored summer camps at 11 locations, Wiley said they will be limited to 25 percent of typical capacity.
He says the county did a survey and 60 percent of the parents of previous participants said they had every intention of returning. The remaining 40 percent were a “mixed bag.”
Wiley notes that the Pasco camps usually fill up within three minutes of registration opening.
“My guess is there are going to be a lot of folks waiting to rush right in,” Wiley says, “and a percentage of families that plan on taking it slow.”
The Wesley Chapel Athletic Association (WCAA), which says it serves more than 3,500 area families, has made no official announcement yet about upcoming registrations.
The WCAA’s Board of Directors met on May 28 to discuss how to best implement its summer athletic programs, and what has to be done to make soccer, basketball and baseball safe for everyone.
Baseball, for example, had just begun its spring Babe Ruth League (which also includes Cal Ripken baseball) when Covid-19 hit. Spring ball would have ended in mid-May, with All-Star Districts and State play running during the summer.
All-stars, however, has been canceled for 2020, so Chad Erker, the director of WCAA Baseball, says the organization may resume the spring league to fill the calendar and get kids back on the fields.
“We’re working on it,” he says. “I think, first and foremost, we’d have to see who is willing to return, who can return, who wants to return. And, who feels safe in returning.”
That will be the same predicament facing every camp and every sports league trying to return to action over the next few months. Erker says entire rosters of teams may need to be shuffled so games can be scheduled. Many camps will have to run at a smaller capacity, due to the CDC guidelines, so the demand may still be there, but the numbers won’t.
Meanwhile, Bland says PROtential’s camps usually have 100-plus participants at each location, but will be limited to 25 percent of their usual capacity.
She has canceled the field trips that are usually a part of the PROtential Sports summer camp experience. Counselors will be taking temperatures daily. The groups will be kept smaller than usual, since some of the activities are held indoors.
“The parents we have talked to that are coming are super excited,” Bland says. “Some aren’t ready. I think it is about 50-50. So, we’ll be a lot smaller. But, it’s the new normal, and I’m embracing it.”