Organized sports are typically part of promoting mental, physical and social health for kids, but the pandemic is requiring parents and sports organizations to weigh the risks and benefits of play.
The recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Ottawa and other hotspots across the province is raising questions about the risks of any activity that involves gathering. But, some experts say, with precautions in place, team sports might be a relatively safe way to get exercise and improve psychological health.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and an associate professor of health sciences at the University of Ottawa, said parents should consider how COVID-19 spreads when assessing the risk.
Specifically, they should consider distance between participants, outdoors being safer than indoors, avoiding face-to-face exposure and evaluating the duration and intensity of contact.
If we get past the anticipated peak in October, November and if we’re doing better then — then I’d reassess the risk.– Raywat Deonandan, University of Ottawa associate professor
“I’d be confident sending my child to an outdoor sport, that does not involve physical contact,” Deonandan said. “Soccer comes to mind … I’d be really confident having my child play tennis or other kind of racquet sports.”
As for hockey and ringette, Deonandan said hockey arenas are big enough that the virus could dissipate in a similar way to being outdoors, as long as there’s no contact and players get changed at home.
He said sports like wrestling or contact football, where individual players may be locked together face-to-face, pose a higher risk.
Get active — 2 metres apart
Ian Janssen, a professor of kinesiology and public health at Queen’s University, said it’s important for children to get active.
“Being active, sitting less and getting out of the house — those are very good things in terms of helping you cope with the mental health challenges of COVID[-19],” he said.
He said long-distance running would likely be the safest activity to avoid viral transmission, but with children especially it’s important for them to want to stay engaged.
“You can tell a 12-year-old to go out and run for five kilometres, how many are going to want to do that? Not a lot,” he said.
Janssen said his daughter now has a taped-off area to ensure two metres of distance when she participates in dance. He said his son’s swim club has implemented distancing measures within the pool, including prohibiting passing and designated starting and stopping points.
Benefit to have ‘normalcy in their life’
Marcia Morris, executive director of the Ottawa Sport Council, says member organizations have seen a dip in registration for the fall, but a core group of people have signed up because of what their sport means to them.
“They’re not going to restaurants, they’re not going to bars, they’re not going to movie theatres, they’re not going out, but the one thing they are prioritizing is going to do their sport,” Morris said.
“Because of the physical and mental benefit, but also the ability to connect and have some normalcy in their life.”
Morris said the council’s 70 member organizations contributed to developing a resource in July to allow for a safe return— including protocols for self-screening, cleaning and distancing — from canoeing to rugby and hockey.
Some of those adaptations mean reducing the number of players participating at a time or focusing on “skills and drills” rather than competition, she said.
No data on cases linked to sports
There have been disruptions in the world of recreational sport as a result of COVID-19. A hockey league in Gatineau, Que., recently shut down temporarily due to positive cases and another in Toronto postponed its season due to the recent increase in cases.
Morris said the sport council has not heard of any such cases in Ottawa within its membership.
In a statement, Ottawa Public Health says it doesn’t have specific data on any spread through sports in part due to the difficulty of tracing individual transmission incidents and also to protect personal health information.
The Ottawa Sport Council said many leagues and associations are offering shorter registration periods, instead of the typical September to March period, to allow for more flexibility.
“Most participants understand that there might be stop and start because as we go through waves of COVID[-19], there might be the requirement that, for safety reasons, the activity has to stop,” Morris said.
Epidemiologist Deonandan suggests a wait-and-see approach for higher risk sports.
“If you can hold off a month or two as we see how this disease moves along its proposed trajectory, if we get past the anticipated peak in October, November and if we’re doing better then — then I’d reassess the risk.”