Youth Baseball Tournament in Missouri Draws Scrutiny

When Dan Peterson heard that there was going to be a youth baseball tournament just west of St. Louis last weekend, he was hesitant to allow his son to play.

But Peterson, who lives in the St. Louis area, also knew how much his son Jaxson, 11, missed playing. After talking with other families and hearing about the safety rules that would be in place, he decided to allow his son to participate.

“Everybody feels a little bit differently about the situation,” said Peterson, who is one of the coaches for his son’s team, the Diamond Stars. “We decided collectively as a team to go ahead and participate.”

While most sports remain on hold in the United States, the Diamond Stars were one of about 40 teams that played in the tournament on Saturday and Sunday, making it one of the few mass sporting events to be held during the pandemic.

Yet the decision to go forward is coming under scrutiny, and it is an example of how fatigue over coronavirus restrictions is colliding with public health demands.

Public health experts said the event was especially worrisome, coming at a time when the state is grappling with how to safely reopen. Missouri confirmed 74 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday, the lowest one-day total since mid-March. There have been at least 10,025 cases of the virus in Missouri, with high concentrations in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, according to a New York Times database. As of Monday evening, at least 512 people had died from the virus in the state.

Gov. Michael L. Parson has begun lifting stay-at-home restrictions and allowing some businesses to reopen, while schools remain closed through the fall.

“There is so much that we don’t know about transmission in our state,” said Lynelle Phillips, the vice president of the Missouri Public Health Association and a professor at the University of Missouri. “To hold a huge baseball tournament, even the most optimistic of us have to cringe at that.”

The tournament might place an extra burden on local health departments, Phillips said. If someone from the tournament tested positive, contact tracers would have to track down everyone that person came in contact with. It would be even more difficult if that person had traveled from a different county or state.

“It comes down to the poor contact tracer,” Phillips said. “It’s just an added complication.”

Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta who has been tracking efforts to resume sports, condemned the decision to hold the event.

“Large tournaments, travel ball should be last to come back,” he wrote on Twitter. “Start with small practices, then single games between local teams. Even if you’re on team ‘open up now’ this is literally the stupidest way you could do it.’’

On Saturday, a television station in Kansas City, Mo., reported on what appeared to be a large, impromptu youth football scrimmage there at which players could be seen not adhering to social-distancing requirements.

Missouri started the first phase of its recovery plan on May 4, allowing some parts of the state to begin reopening. Although the plan says that people should stay six feet apart, it does not limit the number of people allowed at social gatherings.

The baseball tournament was held at fields in St. Charles County, which has also eased some restrictions. However, St. Louis, which shares a border with St. Charles, has the highest number of cases in the state, and its stay-at-home order is still in effect.

A representative for St. Charles County’s health department declined to comment.

Some teams traveled from Illinois, even though stay-at-home orders in their state have not been lifted.

The tournament organizer, GameTime, required players and coaches to maintain social distancing and allowed only three people in the dugout at a time. The umpire stood six feet behind the pitcher’s mound instead of behind home plate, and high-fives and fist pumps were banned. Players were instead encouraged to tip their hats in celebration.

The balls were cleaned every half-inning and the dugouts in between every game. Spectators sat in the outfield instead of in the stands.

A representative for GameTime did not answer messages left on Monday.

Pictures that appeared in the local news media showed that the rules were not always followed.

Some families were apprehensive, and at least two players on the Diamond Stars did not participate, Peterson said. He said that the ones who did play did their best to follow the guidelines, but that staying six feet apart is not always possible when playing baseball.

“For being 11 years old, they did a good job being conscious of the situation,” Peterson said. “We did the best we could.”

His team plans to play in another tournament this weekend, and GameTime has events scheduled every weekend through the fall. The guidelines will continue to be enforced, but the organizer said on its website that it plans to lift them as soon as possible, ideally by the end of May.

“I miss baseball so much,” Phillips said. “This is so hard. I just hope that, as this tournament routine unfolds, that their organizers are ready to make the hard decision and implement restrictions and cancel if that’s what the science and evidence is telling us to do.”

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