The team and its coaches were told to quarantine. Contact tracers in Anne Arundel County reached out to families every day to check on possible symptoms. When the quarantine was over, Mulhern breathed a sigh of relief. No one else on the team had contracted the virus.
The young player, who was asymptomatic, was one of 39 people connected to youth sports in Anne Arundel County who tested positive for the virus this fall, infections that triggered quarantine orders for 804 athletes and coaches.
With the number of cases spiking across the region, county officials decided in November to suspend youth sports, a step that is being taken more frequently as a second wave of the coronavirus sweeps across the country.
For months, parents, coaches and health officers across the region and throughout the country have agonized over the risks of young athletes taking the field or the court in the midst of a pandemic. They know that playing sports helps a child’s physical and mental well-being, teaches teamwork and develops social skills. But they wonder if the risks — even with safety protocols in place — are worth it.
“We think that sports are important, particularly for children to participate in, and we want to do it safely, but we also recognize that there are risk factors,” said Anne Arundel health officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman.
Kalyanaraman said contact tracers found about 22 people, on average, who had been in contact with each infected person linked to youth sports in the county. All were advised to quarantine. The county did not have data on whether any teammates or coaches of the infected people also contracted the virus. But Kalyanaraman said the sheer number of contacts was “overwhelming to our contact-tracing ability.”
“We were just seeing more cases on teams and more quarantines,” he said. “We felt it was time to act.”
Jurisdictions across the Washington region and throughout the country have taken different stances on what is permitted for traveling sports clubs, recreational programs and high school teams. In North Dakota, a coronavirus hot spot, the governor signed an order this month suspending winter sports through Dec. 14. Virginia allows sports but limits spectators to less than 30 percent occupancy in a venue or 25 per field, and it requires screening coaches, officials, staff and players for covid-19 symptoms. In D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said last week she will soon announce new guidance on contact sports.
And in Maryland, practices for winter sports are to begin Dec. 7, with games set for early January, though counties and cities — such as Anne Arundel — can opt out. Howard and Baltimore counties have also suspended youth sports. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have restrictions based on the level of contact. For example, golf is considered low risk and can be played, but football and basketball are considered high risk and are off-limits.
The varied rules have prompted some youth coaches and teams to resort to “county shopping,” as some coaches have called it — searching for a jurisdiction close to home where games can be played without a lot of scrutiny.
Coaches and parents in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties say they know of teams that traveled to Cecil or Harford counties, for example, to play earlier this year. Mulhern said he is familiar with a youth baseball team from New Jersey that used a field in Harford County because playing was restricted in its home state.
“While we do not allow youth sports travel teams to come into Montgomery County, we cannot preclude them to go out of the county,” said Earl Stoddard, the head of emergency management in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.
Montgomery rescinded a permit for a major boys’ soccer tournament after a Pennsylvania girl who participated in a girls’ tournament in the county a week earlier tested positive for the virus. More than 3,000 people attended the girls’ tournament, Stoddard said. He did not know how many people had contact with the infected girl.
Health experts say the threat posed by youth sports is not just contact during the game or practice, which safety protocols can mitigate. It is also the car pools and the lunches after playing, where youngsters might not follow distancing rules.
“They go home,” Kalyanaraman said of the players. “And they can pass it onto somebody else. That’s the core issue.”
Months before Mulhern got the call about the positive case in his league, he was one of 100 people who protested outside of the governor’s mansion, calling on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to let youth sports in Maryland resume. Hogan did so in May.
Mulhern said he disagrees with Anne Arundel’s decision to shut down youth sports again. He has no regrets about his push to resume play.
Recently, he said he asked his children’s pediatrician if he was an “idiot or an overzealous parent” in his push to allow youth sports. The doctor, he said, told him: “Kids absolutely need to be kids.”
Mulhern said he worries about the toll that not playing sports is having on children this year. His son is eating more and spending more time playing video games. “It’s a dynamic change,” he said.
Angela Hansberry and her husband, Paul, had more than a few rounds of debate this summer about whether their 16-year-old son, Amani, would return to Team Durant in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League when restrictions lifted in Maryland.
“When they said it was time to go back, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is not going to be good,’ ” the Silver Spring mother said. “I wasn’t on board. It seemed like the moms were on one side, and the fathers were on the other side of the spectrum.”
In June, when the team started practicing, Hansberry could not resist the glimmer of excitement in her son’s eyes. She agreed he could play, despite her near-obsession with tracking the virus and her own efforts — constantly spraying Lysol on surfaces and in the air — to keep infection out of her home.
“I really was one of those mothers. I don’t even know the term for me,” she said. “I had the app on my phone. I’d look at the cases every day. Ask me and I could tell you how many people were in the hospital.”
One day — when her son hugged her after returning home from practice, and she cringed — Hansberry decided she had to calm herself down. “It was hard,” she said with a pause. “It still is hard. . . . You just learn to try to put your trust in your community.”
She and her husband considered allowing Amani to go to Nevada for a tournament. The team planned to rent a house and bring in food so the players wouldn’t go out. Then cases started spiking. Paul Hansberry said the fathers from the team texted each other. The mothers did too.
The coach ultimately canceled the trip and later organized an eight-week tournament in Virginia with teams from along the Interstate 95 corridor.
The pandemic first hit the region in March, as the Maryland Heat Youth Football program was about to start spring practices. Everything shut down quickly.
When restrictions were lifted and guidelines were put in place, the teams from the Prince George’s County-based program began practicing in pods of 10, spread out on eight different fields, Coach Terrence Byrd said. Most weekends they practiced in Virginia. Byrd said another challenge was finding a field to play their games.
In a normal year, the only players that traveled out of state were the ones who played on the team made up of 14-year-olds. But this year, determined to provide some outlet and recreation to his young charges, Byrd rounded up many of the program’s 250 children to play games in West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
“It’s been a huge commitment . . . a long season for me,” Byrd said, recalling drives as long as six hours. “It’s been a lot on everybody, including my volunteer coaches. Everybody embraced it. . . . The kids looked forward to the one thing they had in terms of social interaction.”
But some parents simply are not willing to take the risk. Adrion Howell, of Bowie, said his 14-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, misses playing volleyball with her travel club — especially because she does not get to see and hang out with her teammates.
“It’s hard to protect the kids when they are inside like that,” he said. “There aren’t many ways to socially distance or wear masks.”
Howell said he is open to allowing Aaliyah to play if proper safety measures are in place. But right now he doesn’t see how that will happen.
“I don’t know, I’m just concerned about safety,” he said. “I don’t want these kids to get exposed, and adults too. You have coaches and referees out there too.”