SACRAMENTO (CBS13) —  A growing number of youth sports teams are voting to travel out of state to play because they’re not allowed to compete in California.

Parents, coaches and players are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to update the youth sports guidance and provide a clear path toward modified competition against local teams. Many feel there is a greater COVID-19 risk related to out-of-state travel than from local competition.

“Let Them Play”

From baseball and basketball to club soccer, more and more teams are playing so-called “prohibition ball” and a growing number of clubs are voting to travel out of state to compete since they can’t do it in California.

Youth sports are a multi-million dollar industry. According to data compiled by Statista, “In March 2020 alone, some 700 thousand youth athletes in the United States were unable to participate in scheduled events at a cost of 700 million U.S. dollars to the event organizers.” A May survey found “24 percent of (parents) were strongly concerned about their children’s youth sports programs going out of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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California’s youth sports and physical education guidance specifies that youth sports are only permitted with “(1) physical distancing of at least six feet between participants; and (2) a stable cohort, such as a class, that limits the risks of transmission.”

Those restrictions make California one of just a handful of states where youth sports competition is still not allowed, according to a list of state guidance compiled by the San Diego Soccer Club.

From Change.Org petitions to Facebook pages, there are a growing number of social media campaigns calling on California to “let kids play” sports.

Many worry the restrictions will have a lasting impact on California youth athletes by putting them at a disadvantage compared to athletes from many other states who have returned to modified competition.

California athletes and their families have organized multiple rallies over the past couple of weeks and youth soccer governing bodies from both Northern California and Southern California sent letters to the governor urging him to provide a timeline for a return to play.

The letters ask for a clear “phased, safe, return-to-play plan” and point to the unintended consequences of the state’s lack of information, including an increasing number of families who are traveling out of state to compete.

To Travel or Not To Travel

Russ Perez is among the parents who’ve reluctantly decided to let their kids travel to play soccer.

“I want my son’s sense of normalcy back. And I know that I’m not alone there,” Perez said.

A May 2020 nationwide survey of parents found about one-third were “less likely” to allow their children to travel to other regions and communities for sports tournaments.

This month, a Placer County soccer club reported that 90% of their parents voted to begin traveling. Among other reasons for the travel, the club cited the need for older players to get playing time during live games for their college recruiting videos.

But for Perez, it’s about more than scholarships and recruiting. He likens soccer without competition to a bicycle with one wheel or distance-learning versus in-person classes.

He explains that competing is part of the training process and says games are necessary for players to demonstrate the skills that they practiced during the week so that coaches can identify what more they need to work on.

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However, not everyone is supportive of youth sports travel right now.

Soccer dad Chris Champlin won’t let his kids travel with their club, not because of the coronavirus risk on the field, but due to the potential ripple effect of travel to states with higher coronavirus rates.

“Getting to and from tournaments is where I’m concerned. I wish the state of California would lift its ban on sports,” Champlin said. “As these teams are starting to travel outside of California, and as schools are starting to reopen, once they return, they could infect other kids in the classroom.”

But Champlin is in the minority on his son’s team where coaches reported fewer than 10% of parents opted not to travel.

The Evolving  Science

The CDC recommends against travel for youth sports, instead, encouraging competition against “local” teams. But that’s not allowed in California.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that we should be able to play,” Perez said, pointing to recent studies commissioned by soccer programs that find low COVID-19 rates among players.

The largest study surveyed 90,000 players from 34 states and found lower COVID-19 rates than in the general population. According to the study out of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, “of the 282 positive cases reported among players, only one was attributed to transmission during soccer activities.”

The study also found “100% of clubs reported having a plan in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and utilizing multiple different risk reduction procedures.”

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“I think these findings are pretty reassuring for playing outdoor soccer,” said University of California, San Francisco infectious disease specialist, Dr. Phillip Norris. CBS13 asked him to review two of the youth soccer studies cited by clubs and parents.

Norris said the University of Wisconsin study is very promising. However, he warns, it has not yet been peer-reviewed, and may not account for the fact that club athletes are often from higher-income families, which have a lower risk of COVID to begin with.

The study also didn’t specifically factor in the added risk of inter-state travel. “They certainly face a higher risk of having to travel and play,” Dr. Norris pointed out.

He believes public health officials should be considering these studies when updating youth sports guidance, which right now requires six feet of distance and stable cohorts in California, essentially forcing teams to travel out of state if they want to compete.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) declined to comment on the studies or team travel, but Norris warns the soccer studies don’t necessarily translate to all sports. For instance, a Placer County basketball gym has been widely criticized for holding indoor basketball tournaments throughout the pandemic.

“If proper safety precautions are followed, outdoors is a lot safer than indoors,” Dr. Norris said.

CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts asked Norris, point blank, “As an infectious disease specialist if you were a parent with a kid playing soccer, would you let them play?”

“I would,” Norris said. “If you look at what’s happening to kids in terms of their mental well-being, their physical well-being, it’s a difficult balance. But we have to find things that are lowest risk to allow them to have their activities,” Norris added.

That was a reassuring response for Perez, who admits he’s nervous to let his son travel.

“We would much rather stay here and play,” Perez said.

Mitigating the Travel Risk Until They Can Stay and Play

Perez plans to take precautions and is considering renting an RV so the family can stay self-contained. He notes that, like many teams, his team has an app that helps with contact tracing.

When they do start to travel, he says families will have to follow strict protocols including a 14-day quarantine after travel. Only the players’ household members will be allowed to travel for competition and meals with multiple families will be prohibited.

Even at home, parents on most teams are no longer allowed near the field and must now watch practice from inside their cars. Some clubs have threatened parents with fines for even standing outside of their car to watch from the parking lot.

Many, like Perez, want the state to consider the studies, and the precautions teams are taking, and provide a clear path toward  the return to modified games against other local teams.

“Put this in front of the jury. Like, someone vote on this!” Perez said.

He points to a recent press conference where Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, reported no link so far between California school openings and COVID-19 Cases. “If you could do it in a classroom with no cases, why can’t you do it on a field that’s 10 times the space?” Perez asked.

While many would like to return to play today, most are calling on the state to at least identify a plan or some path forward for California youth athletes. 

Response From The State

CBS13 asked CDPH for information regarding the COVID concerns for youth athletes who are traveling out of state to play, and any secondary concerns that public health officials might have for their classmates once teams return.

We also asked about specific concerns for outdoor sports versus indoor sports and non-contact versus contact sports, and we asked if the state had reviewed the studies cited in our report.

The CDPH declined to provide a direct response to those questions, and others. Instead, the agency provided the following response:

“We are taking a slow and stringent approach to protect the health of all Californians during the pandemic. This is important as well with flu season right around the corner.

Youth sports and physical education are permitted only when the following can be maintained: (1) physical distancing of at least six feet between participants; and (2) a stable cohort, such as a class, that limits the risks of transmission (see CDC Guidance on Schools and Cohorting). Activities should take place outside to the maximum extent practicable.

Updated guidance may be released in the future, at which point, it will be posted on cdph.ca.gov and covid19.ca.gov. As far as travel within and outside of California, please click here for current guidance.

CDPH does not typically comment on studies in which the department is not involved. Should that change in this case, we’ll let you know.”

After repeated requests for information from the CDPH, CBS13 reached out to the governor’s office. We forward our unanswered questions and asked specifically if the state is “currently working on guidance that provides a path forward for a return to youth sports competition in California.” We also asked if the governor planned to respond to the letters he received from youth sports organizations across the state requesting a “‘phased plan’ for return to play”.

The governor’s office did not respond but we did receive the following response from CDPH over the weekend:

“The Governor’s Office shared your most recent inquiry with the California Department of Public Health. As we previously mentioned, this is the information that is available. If we have anything further to add, we will let you know.”

UPDATE 11-3-22:

Following this back and forth, and several letters from youth sports organizations, the governor announced on October 19 that Dr. Ghaly would be providing updated guidance. He initially implied the update would come during Tuesday October 20 public health press conference, but later said “team sports guidelines” would be announced “hopefully as early as late this week or early next week.”

The updated guidelines announced on October 20 were specific to professional sports. However, Dr. Ghaly did reference youth sports, stating, “Stay tuned, it’s something we’re working on now.” He added that the state was “taking feedback from a number of entities that operate youth sports in an organized way across the state… everything from pony and little league to indoor basketball and swimming.”

CBS13 has since asked CDPH for a list of the stakeholders that the state is working with to produce the updated Youth Sports guidance. CDPH provided the following response:

“The state is working with counties, the California Interscholastic Federation and California Association of Recreation and Park Districts. Guidance is expected in the near future.”

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