Parents, kids and sports administrators in the Greater Toronto Area are worried it's going to be another summer of lost friendships and missed opportunities for young athletes as the pandemic drags on, forcing leagues to restrict activities or shut down altogether.
"Last season was pretty much a full cancellation for the league," says Peter Paz, a board member at High Park Little League.
"We were all upset about it. It's part of our family, part of our community, we spend from April through to September, four or five days a week here. And not having to play baseball had a tremendous impact."
While some outdoor soccer and baseball leagues were able to offer limited activities last summer, provincial health guidelines made it difficult for most to offer programming, especially at the recreational or house league level.
Over the winter, opportunities became more limited. In hockey, more competitive players were able to get on to the ice for limited practice but no games. No organizations, including the Greater Toronto Hockey League, the world's largest youth hockey league, were able to operate. By the end of November, the province sidelined all formal activity and it has remained virtually dormant since.
And now, with the region in the middle of a third wave dominated by deadlier and more transmissible COVID-19 variants, it's anybody's guess what the next several months will look like on GTA sports fields, even as more people get vaccinated, making it difficult for administrators and families to plan athletics for kids.
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"The programs that are suffering the most are the recreational programs, the once a week, play on a house league team in soccer or baseball or anything," says Helena Ruken, president of the North Toronto Soccer League, one of the largest in the city.
"Those kids are completely unengaged and I'm worried that lots of them won't come back into the sport if we can't start it soon."
Ruken estimates that her club, which usually serves more than 5,000 children, is looking at a potential 30 per cent drop in registration, if and when it can resume full-time activities.
"If they have other sports that they're going to, that's one thing. But we're just afraid seeing other numbers from other sports, that there's just a general deterioration in the overall participation level," adds North Toronto Soccer's executive director Doug Blair.
Blair says when that's a growing point of frustration among leagues, parents and athletes.
He calls the current provincial rules aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which allow people to visit patios and big box stores and frequent shopping malls but doesn't allow them to take part in outdoor organized sports, "confusing"
"The big box stores have been allowed 50 per cent [capacity]. And if you go there, everybody is crowded together. It's just hard to understand," he says.
"We're mostly community-based organizations. We're not big business. We don't have lobbyists. So, we are being heard but I just don't think we've been heard enough."
Blair also adds that compared to parks and school, where on most days large groups of children gather for unsupervised and unstructured play, organized sports must adhere to strict COVID-19 safety protocols. He says that when the organization was able to operate in a limited capacity last year, it provided more than 70,000 hours of training without a single COVID-19 case.
In a recent letter to Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, Soccer Ontario, which governs more than 600 clubs, called on the province to relax the current rules. It stated the "the current scientific consensus is that there is no scientific justification for restrictions in the overwhelming majority of youth sports (including contact sports), and especially in cases where those sports are played outdoors."
Playing outside with safety protocols 'very, very low risk,' expert says
Infectious disease specialist Dr Zain Chagla says they have a point. Chagla says playing outside coupled with proper safety protocols like masking and contact tracing makes transmission of COVID-19 "very, very low risk."
"When you get to things where there is some close, fleeting contact like baseball and soccer, wearing a mask adds another layer of protection. People aren't generally trying to get into contact with each other," Chagla says.
"What we've seen with sports transmission has not really been the sports themselves, although there's been a few isolated cases, it's been this stuff before and afterwards."
Chagla says as this pandemic drags on, everything should be done to get as many children as possible back onto the field of play.
"I think you can really put a road map there, especially in the context of science being these are low risk events, of people having pandemic fatigue," he says.
"I think … as the weather gets better, we really do need to put it on the table as it's so important for people's mental and physical well-being."
The province acknowledges that getting kids back into sport is "absolutely critical" but even recent changes in Toronto, which allow groups of five to practise, don't offer leagues the flexibility they need to operate.
"I know that everybody is itching to really get out there and do activities and we want people to do activities but we want them to do them safely," says Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate medical officer of health.
"I know the public health measures table has been looking at sports activities and making recommendations, so these are under active consideration now.
Another key thing leagues in Toronto say they need is the ability to expand beyond a bubble of 50 children, once the city moves back into orange, yellow or green.
Soccer Ontario said in its letter that its member organizations "will collapse economically" if another season passes by "without being able to return to more robust activities." That means being able to provide not just practices and drills but games involving at least four teams and 100 children.
"With 50 players, you can barely have two teams or you can have three teams with leaving some kids out of it, out of the program," Blair says.
At High Park Baseball, board member Peter Paz says the league is preparing to operate safely whatever provincial guidelines are in place. At the same time, he hopes to get back to normal.
"The kids want to play baseball. They want to compete. And whether they win or lose, they want to know that they were out there playing for something," Paz explains.
"Competition is critical for the kids, whether it's in house league, whether it's in rep, whether it's baseball, whether it's soccer. So just practices, it's not sustainable."