Sports During the Pandemic: How to Decide if It's Safe to Play

Many parents have asked me lately whether it’s OK for kids to go back to fall sports. We know that COVID-19 is still out there, but our kids have been in social isolation for months and are doing online school. Can’t we at least let them participate in their favorite sports?

It’s a tough question. We know that COVID-19 is very contagious -- the CDC just restated that it is spread through aerosols, which means that infected particles from our nose and mouth can be suspended in the air for hours. And there are still hot spots all over our country, with some counties more infectious than others. Having said that, our kids have had a difficult 6 months. And the pandemic won’t be ending anytime soon. We also know that it will take time for the vaccine to get approved and there are still some questions about how long it will take for it to be available for everyone, which means that we still have at least months of restrictions, if not a year.

In the meantime, mental health issues are on the rise as well. With the stress of COVID and other turmoil in the country, financial losses, and social isolation, families are feeling the pressures, culminating in anxiety and depression for many people. In a recent survey by the CDC, 40% of adults are having anxiety or depression, a threefold to fourfold rise since last year. Even prior to COVID-19, one-third of kids were likely to have the diagnosis of anxiety by age 18, so we weren’t at a great spot for mental health even before all of this started. Being around other people, even if it’s distanced, can help us feel better naturally by activating our parasympathetic system, which balances the “fight or flight” stress response that may be in overdrive lately. Exercise is another natural remedy -- it releases endorphins which can help elevate mood.

So what do we do? I believe that we can achieve a balance and learn to “live” with COVID by being thoughtful and careful with the activities that we choose for our kids. Some sports are automatically socially distanced, such as cross-country or tennis, while others are more questionable such as indoor basketball. Here are a few tips on how I choose for my own kids:

  • Is there social distancing in the sport? The safest activities are the ones where participants are far apart -- this could be running, golf, or even swimming.
  • In group sports, how long is the contact with other players? Longer than a few minutes increases the risk. If a sport is outside with minimal time of grouping such as soccer, it may be OK, if masks and social distancing are observed off the field and there’s a low rate of COVID in the community.
  • Do players share equipment? If equipment is shared, this increases the likelihood of infection. For example, if a child has a runny nose or coughs inside a helmet or on his jersey, it’s probably not a good idea to share it.
  • Does the team require travel to other communities? The likelihood of being exposed to COVID-19, depends on how many cases there are in a community and what percentage of people are testing positive. So even if your community has a low number, if your kids travel to one that has more infection, the risk increases. Stick to nontraveling sports if you can.
  • Is the sport indoors or outdoors? Anything that is indoors is riskier, especially if kids are breathing faster because they are running around. The virus can be transmitted through aerosols (very small particles from our nose and mouth) and can linger in the air, especially since indoor areas are not always well ventilated.
  • Are the kids, parents, and observers all following the COVID-19 safety rules? This is important. If people believe that masks are not necessary or are gathering in large numbers, the likelihood of transmission from their kids increases.

Also, remember that you may be faced with a situation where you and your family may need to opt out for a few games. One friend’s son was exposed during an outdoor basketball game to a child who ended up being COVID-positive. Even though the chances of getting it were less because it was outside, they had to quarantine for 14 days. Luckily, his test was negative. Be prepared for this type of situation to happen.

Finally, if your kids are able to participate, the community infectivity rate is low, and all agree about the safety rules, getting back to some activities can be very helpful. Kids need to get out there, move, and socialize; and as parents, we do too.