ODESSA — The reminders of the coronavirus pandemic are easy to see outside the white lines at Starkey Ranch District Park.
Temperature scans before entering the soccer fields. Hand sanitizer pumps at the gates. Socially distanced parents, some wearing masks, watching from the parking lot.
Between the white lines, however, Florida Premier FC’s tryouts look like any other youth soccer practice, with boys in numbered shorts progressing into 9-on-9 play.
“During the shutdown, we were working really hard behind the scenes so that we could be prepared to resume operations once the governor, the county and the soccer associations decided that it was safe to return,” said Anthony Federico, the president of the club’s board of directors.
But the question hanging over these youth soccer fields is the same one being asked in every other industry across Tampa Bay: Is it really safe to return yet?
Federico’s program says the answer is yes, as long as everyone follows proper health guidelines. Gov. Ron DeSantis does, too, which is why he lifted all restrictions on youth sports on May 22.
At least 14 major clubs in the area disagree, which is why they banded together with a hashtag (#UnitedforTampaBay) and YouTube video explaining why they’re not yet resuming tryouts or training.
“You’re talking about people’s children,” said Gary Rach, the executive director of one of the region’s largest programs, the West Florida Flames. “Their safety has to come first.”
Florida Premier FC worked with Pasco County health officials to identify and implement the steps they believe will make soccer as safe as possible for the 2,500 boys and girls who compete in the club’s recreational and competitive leagues from under-6 through under-18.
Coaches instruct and evaluate in masks. Players enter one way and exit another to avoid unnecessary close contact. Tryouts are staggered, and organizers try to keep groups at 10 or fewer people while spreading them across six large fields. The restrooms are cleaned more often. Registration paperwork includes a COVID-19 release form.
If players or their parents aren’t yet comfortable with large groups, they can try out virtually or in a one-on-one setting. When in-person workouts began Thursday, 300 children rotated stations at two Pasco complexes over four hours.
“Everything’s been very positive so far…” Federico said. “We can be the example of how to safely get things back and running again.”
As Federico’s club prepared to return last week, 14 other clubs in the area posted their video explaining why they’re not ready to get back yet.
Their conversation began not long after DeSantis removed youth sports restrictions. Anthony Latronica couldn’t believe it.
“We’re still in Phase 1, and schools are still closed,” said Latronica, the sporting director for the Tampa Bay United Rowdies Soccer Club. “So how the heck could I justify putting the kids back out on the field?”
When Latronica started asking his colleagues at other clubs, many of them couldn’t justify it, either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still encouraging people to stay 6 feet apart — an easy thing to do in tennis or golf but not in soccer.
“Originally the idea was that we could start training without any restrictions on Phase 3,” said Roberto Lopez, the Chargers Soccer Club’s academy director. “We’re not even on Phase 2 yet. What all of a sudden changed that now we’re safe, you know?”
Unlike Florida Premier FC, the Chargers face a logistical obstacle: Pasco County’s fields have opened, Clearwater, Pinellas and Hillsborough remain closed.
That’s not the biggest concern Rach has for his Flames.
“We could host tryouts tomorrow,” Rach said. “But the reality of it is, again, what kind of safety measures are we putting in place to make sure we’re creating the optimum environment for return?”
Rach is still figuring out what those measures might entail. In addition to steps like disinfecting balls and equipment, the Flames plan to start with one-on-one technical work before phasing into small-group drills and, after a few weeks, full tryouts.
Latronica also wants to return slowly because he fears what will happen if he doesn’t. Not only could one infection have tragic effects to one of his players or coaches or their families, it could spread into a cross-county outbreak, given his club’s large geographic footprint.
“The thing that will bury us is if we have a second shutdown or a second wave…” Latronica said. “If we open too early as a club, we’re contributing to the possibility of this thing lingering and being pushed farther and farther away. So what I’m trying to do is make decisions now that prepare us for the long term.”
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