Tournament organizers enforce mask mandates as youth sports press on in Southern Utah

Spectators look on as seventh-graders from Crimson Cliffs and Hurricane compete in the Southern Utah Nevada Youth Football League championship at Crimson Cliffs High School, Oct. 31, 2020 | Photo by Rich Allen, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — It was the opposite of a normal football game: all the eyes on the field were directed toward the stands.

The Crimson Cliffs and Hurricane seventh-grade football players were just over five minutes into their Southern Utah Nevada Youth Football League championship game before play was halted while league Vice President of Operations Jamie Turlington and other officials attempted to enforce a mask-wearing mandate among the fans at Crimson Cliffs High School.

“When we get to the field, we look at the stands and see if people are complying,” Turlington said. “And if they’re not, we’ll stop the game. If it continues, we have to forfeit it … We haven’t had to forfeit a game, but we’ve had to kick a couple people out for noncompliance.”

The delay lasted five minutes as fans gradually put on face coverings before the contest resumed. The threat of the game being canceled altogether and costing their kids a shot at a championship was enough to push them to compliance.

However, less than an additional football field’s length away, two more completely independent sporting events were being held: a club softball game and a travel baseball game, part of a larger tournament with events dotted across the St. George area, including at Snow Canyon High School. It resulted in the small venue of the Crimson Cliffs campus being packed with hundreds of athletes and onlookers as the day progressed.

Crimson Cliffs High School’s football field, date not specified | Submitted photo, St. George News

The tournaments were held amid rising rates of COVID-19 infections across the state. The recent surge sparked Utah to send its first Wireless Emergency Alert of the pandemic on Friday. 

The baseball tournament in particular drew the attention of concerned St. George News readers as it approached this weekend.

“Ask our city/county why they are hosting huge baseball tournaments where hundreds from other states are gathering and possibly spreading the virus! Maybe that’s why we have a spike,” one reader wrote in an email.

The tournament, Rocky Mountain School of Baseball’s Fall Extravaganza, has drawn teams from as many as eight states and Canada in year’s past, according to the organization’s website. This year’s edition featured 102 teams across seven age divisions. Of those, 87 were Utah-based and 16 were out-of-state, coming from as far as Washington state. If each team rostered only 10 players, that is still up to 1,020 players coming from out of town, staying in hotels and eating out at local restaurants after coming from their environments before the tournament and returning to them after. For the two teams from California — both in the 10u bracket — it was a rare opportunity to play, given their home state is one of three to still prohibit youth sports altogether.

None of the 16 non-Utah teams were older than the 14u bracket.

Rocky Mountain School of Baseball did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

However, the city of St. George, Washington County School District and the event directors are all in agreement: As long as social distancing, mask wearing and other safety guidelines are followed, the risk of transmission is mitigated enough to allow youth sports to continue, even with three concurrent events happening right next to each other. 

“In our discussions with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, we are being told that these types of outdoor events, and the visitors coming to our community in recent weeks, are not a significant cause of the recent increase in COVID-19 cases,” St. George Communications Director David Cordero said in a statement.

It is near impossible to get tangible figures on COVID-19 rates connected to youth sports. 

But at least in the case of the Southern Utah Nevada Youth Football League, Turlington believes that their season has been a success in avoiding making the pandemic worse. She said there were only three positive tests in the league for the entirety of the nine-week season, including playoffs, with no event cancellations.

“I’m so happy that we actually made it to the end of the season,” Turlington said. “We went through the protocols. People did what they were asked to — for the most part — and it was a pretty good season overall.”

The CDC still considers youth competition high risk, with “full competitions between teams from different geographic areas” being the highest level of risk. To reduce the spread of the virus, it recommends staying home when appropriate, practicing hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, wearing a mask, providing adequate supplies and posting informational messages at venues when competition does occur.

Ed. note: Removed erroneous reference to a city policy.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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