Efforts underway to allow events to resume at Sarasota County athletic fields and to reopen playgrounds in parks

Staff reviewing plans that county has required from athletic leagues, which encompass details about how CDC guidelines would be observed

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Nicole Rissler. File photo

Planning is underway to reactivate youth athletic league practices and games in Sarasota County and to reopen playgrounds in the county’s parks, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, told the County Commission this week.

All events and programs at county facilities were cancelled through May 1, she reminded the board members.

This week, she pointed out, staff requested that “all athletic leagues submit re-entry plans …”

Those plans must provide information about how the leagues propose to enforce U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for preventing the spread of COVIDd-19, including social distancing during events and operations, she added. “And, probably most importantly,” she continued, the plans must include details about “what their sanctioning body — either state or federal — is telling them because, ultimately, that’s who has the insurance [for those leagues].”

As of that morning, Rissler continued, 25 plans had been provided to staff; those represented about 100 leagues and organizations that use county athletic facilities. “We’re looking June 1 and beyond,” she said, for reactivation.

In response to a question from Commissioner Charles Hines, Rissler explained that staff is reviewing each plan with an eye toward “the risk associated with it,” such as the amount of contact between players. Moreover, she said, some events draw far more people than others, which raises concerns about keeping spectators at least 6 feet apart, as the CDC recommends.

“Sports play such a vital role with kids,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler told her. And, based on his understanding, he continued, far fewer cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported among children. He added, for example, that he believes “the kids that are playing T-ball” would be less at risk.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler awaits the answer to a question during the May 20 board meeting. News Leader image

Then Ziegler asked when playgrounds would reopen. “I got a 6-, I got a 4-, and I got a 1-year-old,” Ziegler said. “They’re just bursting at the seams to get out of the house and climb on playgrounds, see other kids.”

“I also have young kids who are ready to burst out of not doing schoolwork anymore,” Rissler replied. “We understand playgrounds are a hot topic.” However, she pointed out, when playgrounds are re-opened, “We’re going to see immediate congregating. … It’s hard to tell kids to be 6 feet apart and have any kind of enforcement of that,” she added, referring to a CDC recommendation.

Further, Rissler noted, “As you can imagine, playgrounds have significant touch points.”

“We need an army to be cleaning our playgrounds,” she continued. Even if the equipment were sanitized once a day, she emphasized, the county has 50 playgrounds spread among its parks. To clean the equipment even once a day, she said, “would be a huge strain on our resources.”

Additionally, Rissler pointed out, the National Recreation and Park Association has warned its members to be careful about the types of cleaning agents used, as “some of those chemicals can actually reduce the life cycle” of equipment.

As to Ziegler’s point about children being less likely to contract COVID-19, Rissler said, “Yes, we see that kids are being affected less … But we don’t know that they don’t transmit it and take it home.”

During their re-opening planning discussions, Rissler continued, staff members have joked about shining a light on a soccer ball with which children have played and observing all the contact points. That has made staff think about children leaving athletic fields and playgrounds and then going home “and hugging Grandma or Mom or someone else …” The concern is that the children could spread the virus that way, she pointed out.

“We’re going to try to [get athletic field use and playgrounds reactivated] as fast as we can,” Rissler told the commissioners, “but in a safe manner.”