WebMD Health News

Is It Safe to Play Sports?

boys playing football

June 19, 2020 -- After a spring of being cooped up and benched due to COVID, many kids are ready to say, “Put me in, coach!”

But parents -- anxious as they may be to have their kids return to play -- may wonder if it’s safe to head back to the court or ballfield. Or, does sweat, spit, slides, slam-dunks, and other common sports scenarios make play too risky during the days of COVID?

It depends on the sport and how it’s played. In May, the CDC issued new guidelines for youth sports organizations to consider when reopening and ranked sports settings by their potential to spread the coronavirus.

“The lowest level of risk in youth sports would be at home, practicing individual skills level drills,” says Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader of the CDC’s Community Interventions and At-Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response. “The riskiest thing would be full competition, with no changes and no mitigation strategies implemented, and playing teams from different areas, in a travel team environment.”

A new 16-page report by the National Federation of State High School Associations provides further guidance for the safe reopening of athletics and activities. It lists potential infection risk by sport, based on United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee -- Sports Medicine recommendations. Football and wrestling rank among the riskiest sports, while golf and running are some of the safest, in terms of catching COVID.

Higher risk: Sport involves close, sustained contact with others without protective barriers.

  • Boys lacrosse
  • Competitive cheer
  • Dance
  • Football
  • Wrestling

Moderate risk: Sport involves close, sustained contact with protective gear, or intermittent close contact, or group sport, or equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants.

  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Girls lacrosse
  • Gymnastics
  • Ice and field hockey
  • Soccer
  • Softball
  • Swimming
  • Swimming relays
  • Tennis (could be lower risk with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks)
  • Volleyball
  • Water polo

Lower risk: Sport can be done with social distancing and no sharing of equipment.

  • Alpine skiing
  • Cross-country running (with staggered starts)
  • Golf
  • Individual swimming
  • Running events
  • Sideline cheer
  • Throwing events (javelin, shot put, discus)
  • Weightlifting

Before You Go

When deciding what’s safe and what’s not for your family this summer, Baldwin suggests you check your local, state, and community orders and ask yourself some core COVID-19 questions.

  • Are you or anyone you live with over age 65 or at risk of severe illness? The risk of getting a serious infection from COVID-19 increases with age and certain medical conditions.
  • Do you and those you will be interacting with follow the same steps to prevent infection, such as wearing masks and washing hands?
  • Will the activity put you in close contact with others? If so, can you maintain 6 feet of social distance in a reasonable way?
  • How often do players touch and share gear and equipment? As a rule, don’t share items. But if you must, are you prepared to clean and disinfect them between each use?
  • What’s the current level of COVID-19 spread in your community? “The lower the level of community transmission, the safer it is for you to go out,” says Baldwin.

Not sure which sport to choose for your child? Prioritize outdoor sports over indoor play as much as possible.

“We know that being outside will likely lower your risk of getting COVID because it’s good for your immune system,” said Jerome Adams, MD, the U.S. surgeon general, in an interview with WebMD chief medical officer John Whyte, MD. “The virus is going to be less likely to spread outside than in enclosed indoor spaces. And both heat and humidity have been shown to decrease the amount of time the virus lives.”

While You’re There

Ready to play ball? Slather on the sunscreen and sanitizer, but skip the mask.

It’s “not advisable” for kids to wear masks when playing sports, says Baldwin. But coaches, staff, referees, parents, and spectators should wear masks as much as possible, per CDC recommendations.

Masks aren’t the only change you’ll see at the game during this new age of youth sports. Gone are the days of high-fives, handshakes, hugs, and fist bumps. The CDC and sports organizations are asking players and coaches to avoid these celebratory moves because such contact could spread COVID germs. Also, no more clustering of kids on the sidelines or benches to cheer on their teammates. Players who aren’t actively in the game should keep 6 feet away from others at all times.

“You can’t fill a dugout full of kids,” Baldwin says. Instead, consider using the downtime to work on individual skill-building.

What will you see as kids return to sports play this summer? Smaller teams, staggered practice schedules, temperature checks for players, limits on the number of spectators, and, possibly, cancellation of travel teams. You’ll also likely be asked to sign a waiver stating that you’re aware that signing up for a team sport can increase your or your child’s risk of catching COVID.

All sports come with some risk of getting sick with COVID or any other illness. Local communities and youth sports organizations suggest these tips to prevent the spread of the coronavirus while playing sports.

  • Don’t come to practice or the game if you’re sick or have been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Fill your sports bag with these must-haves: lots of hand sanitizer, a refillable water bottle with the player’s name on it, and wipes or a towel for sweat.
  • Label all sports gear and belongings with your player’s name. For example, mark tennis balls with a sharpie. Keep items in marked bins, other containers, or areas away from other teammates.
  • Ride to the game with family members, but don’t carpool to the game with teammates.
  • Be on time but not early. If you are, wait in the car until just before practice or game time starts.
  • Players shouldn’t chew gum or spit. A person can catch COVID if they touch saliva from an infected person.
  • Players should stay 6 feet apart during warmups and practice to maintain social distancing.
  • Celebrate a win with a thumbs-up or maybe a quick and gentle elbow bump. Avoid fist bumps, chest bumps, hugs, and high-fives.
  • If bringing post-game snacks, place pre-packaged snacks in a separate bag for each player and designate one person to hand them out. No more share-and-grab bags.

After the Game

Immediately after game play, wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Clean and disinfect all balls, bats, helmets, chairs, shoes, and other gear that you brought with you. Wash uniforms as soon as you get home.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 19, 2020

Sources

Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader, CDC’s Community Interventions and At Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response.

Jerome Adams, MD, U.S. surgeon general.

CDC: “Considerations for Youth Sports.” 

Aspen Institute Project Play: “Coronavirus and Youth Sports.”

National Federation of State High School Associations: “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities.”

Office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf: “Guidance for All Sports Permitted to Operate During the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency to Ensure the Safety and Health of Employees, Athletes and the Public.”

Minnesota Department of Health: “Guidance for Social Distancing in Youth Sports.”

National Council of Youth Sports: “Return to Play Considerations.”

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