How mask mandates threw a wrench into Colorados restored youth soccer period

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The invective arrived fairly regularly in his email box or came buzzing across his phone line, making Nate Shotts a target for animosity over rules governing protective masks at venues  across Colorado.

Gubernatorial aide? Health official? Bar or restaurant owner? 

Nope. Shotts heads the umbrella organization for the state’s youth soccer clubs.

As CEO of the Colorado Soccer Association, he has helped young athletes return to play despite an array of sometimes conflicting safety regulations enacted among jurisdictions where the state’s more than 65 individual clubs play their games. And those differences, which can affect everything from access to fields and rules of play, don’t always sit well with parents and coaches whose teams often travel many miles for competition.

“We get hit with nasty-grams all the time,” he said. “I want to say they should just be happy they can be back and playing with whatever restrictions. Some states are not even playing. It’s absolutely driving us crazy. People call us and say, ‘Why is it this way?’ They think we’re making up different guidelines for different areas. We’re doing the best we can to get information out to clubs, so they know what to expect when they travel.

“One lady wanted me to shut down the entire state. She said when someone dies, it will be on my hands. I get calls ranging from that to, ‘Thanks for keeping us playing under any conditions.’ You need a thick skin in this business.”

The COVID-19 response has been so fragmented, in terms of outdoor sports activity, that the CSA put out a spreadsheet listing 136 separate field locations and the restrictions on each. Those can range from spectator limits to overall park capacities to parking protocol to rules governing the arrival and departure times for players and fans. Not to mention who provides the hand sanitizer.

Some would rather forfeit than play in Boulder

But nothing has rankled folks quite like a mandatory mask rule for players on the field, Shotts said. The mandate from Boulder County “really put the clamps on everything” because some teams have declined to travel to Boulder and have their players wear masks as they sprint up and down the pitch.

“They’re running 50% of the games they would normally run, because you have people opting out,” he said. Some teams’ unwillingness to play in Boulder is unfortunate, he added, because in Colorado’s 14-state West Region, five other states have required all players to be masked in order to return to competition. 

Boulder has been the flashpoint in Colorado, even though it’s not the only jurisdiction that requires players on the field to be masked. But confusing layers of health restrictions, and an absence of any enforcement, moved a second jurisdiction — which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, including all of Aurora — to recently issue a stern reminder to bring teams into compliance.

Back in August, Shotts sent a letter to CSA member clubs noting that the Boulder County mask mandate was its “biggest challenge” and had prompted high volumes of calls and emails. He asked clubs to be respectful when reaching out to Boulder teams with regard to the issue, citing the need to “discourage the angry phone calls from upset team coaches.”

Much of the pushback has come from teams outside Boulder County, some operating under looser restrictions, that must comply when they play at a Boulder County or Aurora facility.

Coach Fields Brown addresses his FC Boulder team at a Sept. 19 game against the Boulder Soccer Club. Local rules mandate that players must wear masks in competition. (Provided by Nico Toutenhoofd)

Fields Brown, director of operations and development for FC Boulder, said while the restrictions imposed by Boulder County Public Health may not create the ideal situation for many players and their parents, the important thing is that young people have been able to return to play at all. 

“The city and county of Boulder has been more conservative from the beginning than anywhere else, which is fine,” he said. “A lot of our membership is probably very much in line with that. We just follow the policies.”

Following CSA suggestions, many matches have either been postponed, in hope that the mask requirement eventually will be lifted, or rescheduled to a site with more lenient rules.

“It’s something we’ve had to abide by, and we realize it’s a little bit different, but it’s what we have to do,” Brown said. “Our kids wear (masks) when they’ve been training, so it’s no different for our players when they play a match on weekends.”

Drink your juice box in the car, kids.

Another restriction that Boulder enforces that’s at least slightly different from most soccer venues: No spectators at all are allowed at the Pleasant View complex where FC Boulder and the Boulder County Soccer Club play their home matches.

Capacity protocols run the gamut statewide, from Boulder’s no-spectator rule to slightly more generous restrictions that allow one or two family members per player to park-wide limits of 175 people. There are also varying rules for the number of players and referees per field, and strict instructions for arrival and departure that leave no room for post-match social lingering.

Brown said that given all the various limits, Boulder decided that even small allowances for spectators would be too difficult to enforce. Parents can escort younger players to their field, but can’t watch from inside the complex. Family members and others must observe from the parking lot. 

But it’s the mask rule, and concerns that it may result in more adverse effects on competing players than it offers protection, that has given some organizations pause about traveling to Boulder for a match.

“A home game for us might become an away game,” Brown said. “We’ve had some difficulty with it.”

REAL Colorado, whose teams play home games largely in Douglas County, is one of those clubs that has tried to move its games against Boulder-based teams to its own fields to avoid the mask mandate.

“It’s regrettable that they’ve chosen to do a mask mandate for players, because I do think it’s impactful in a negative way — that’s just my opinion,” said Jared Spires, REAL Colorado’s chief operating officer. “But I also applaud Boulder for continuing to move forward, because the most important part is kids are allowed to go out and play and be active.”

Two youth soccer players compete for the ball during a match. All but a couple of jurisdictions statewide do not require players to wear masks in competition. (Provided by Javier Arellano/Colorado Soccer Association)

As for REAL Colorado’s own policies that don’t require players on the field to be masked, Spires pointed to the fact that Douglas County’s case numbers have been “dramatically lower than most.” So its protocols tend to focus on mask wearing, too — everywhere but on the field.

What pushback REAL Colorado has gotten, Spires said, generally involves specific situations where a family may have an at-risk adult living at home, and they noticed instances when the club’s own safety rules weren’t being followed. That triggers calls to the offending team’s coach with orders to ensure compliance. 

Outside of those “one-off situations,” Spires added, most of the static he’s received has been about games scheduled in Boulder — and Aurora Sports Park, where a mask mandate for players had existed since summer but wasn’t always followed. He said parents objected on the grounds that they felt the mandate was unhealthy for their young players.

“So there’s some frustration,” Spires added. “And that’s where they need to understand, in the grand scheme of things, where REAL fits. We don’t get to decide what Boulder does, what Aurora Sports Park does. We’re guests there and need to abide by their rules, or figure out a way to play them somewhere else.”

When Boulder teams go on the road, its players have the option of playing maskless if that’s the local rule, Brown said. A couple of players on his U19 team play with them, but most don’t.

Aaron Nagel, the executive director of the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club, which serves about 10,000 players all along the Front Range, said he can understand the frustration.

“The conversation changes every week,” Nagel said. “Asking people to do something different is difficult in any scenario. When you’ve got half the state that’s more lenient, like Douglas County, and statistics that show the transmission rate on the field is zero to date, and then ask teams to go to Boulder and wear masks, I can see how that would frustrate people. That’s a difficult conversation.”

Tri-County issues stern reminder

While some organizations thought all along that Boulder County was the only jurisdiction with a mask mandate, the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, reissued a reminder, through the city of Aurora, emphasizing that it also requires players to be masked while on the field.

On Sept. 25, Paul Smith, recreation supervisor for Aurora, sent a letter to a variety of youth sports organizations as an “update” — essentially a stern reminder, issued on behalf of the health department and city management, that a local mask mandate is indeed in effect, except for jurisdictions that have opted out of the outdoor mask requirement, and for individuals who have a specific health exemption. (The state’s indoor mask requirement applies to everyone.)

We weren’t necessarily aware of it, and clubs were kind of ignoring it.

Nate Shotts, CEO Colorado Soccer Association

Nothing had really changed: Tri-County health’s mandate was issued on July 24. It applies to everyone over age 10, and includes kids playing outdoor sports — “because,” the letter said in bold print, “they could come within 6 feet of another player.”

But the mandate wasn’t always followed. 

“We weren’t necessarily aware of it,” the CSA’s Shotts said, “and clubs were kind of ignoring it.”

Some of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that, even within the Tri-County area, several jurisdictions opted out of the outdoor mask rule, including unincorporated Douglas County as well as areas in Arapahoe County. But not Aurora, which straddles both Adams and Arapahoe counties.

“That’s where it gets tricky,” said Jessica Reeder, a chronic disease prevention specialist with Tri-County Health. “There are lots of layers within this opting-out piece of the mandate. You could have these little pockets where the mandate would be in effect here, but this area across the street doesn’t have to.” 

The lack of compliance, along with the recent re-opening of Aurora’s own recreational leagues, prompted the city to send out Tri-County’s reminder on Sept. 18, effective immediately but allowing for some flexibility as organizations communicate the mandate — including limits on spectators and rosters — to all parties.

Erin Pulliam, the city’s superintendent of marketing and special events, said that the reminder anticipates that all types of sports teams from areas under different rules will continue to come to Aurora for tournaments (including the state high school girls softball tournament) and regular competition at facilities like the massive Aurora Sports Park. And it recognizes that up to now, some teams — including teams that play home games at the facility — considered masks optional.

“So we talked about how our communication needs to be stern and clear, that when you come to Aurora Sports Park, you’re under our guidance,” Pulliam said.

Don’t have a mask? We made one for you.

When the coronavirus took hold in the United States last March, the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club purchased 10,000 gaiters printed with the club’s logo.

At the time, the club had no particular plans for them, other than they might come in handy if mask restrictions ever went into effect, recalled executive director Nagel. Although some early reports questioned the effectiveness of gaiters as a means of protection from the virus, further studies have shown that they can be helpful. 

“So potentially, kids can wear them around their neck, pull them up when they need to, or down to catch their breath,” Nagel said. “They’ve been a big hit, and for some have become part of the uniform.” 

Rapids players wore them at their individual discretion at the Aurora field — until the city’s “update” made the outdoor mask mandate clear.

“The changing landscape, narrative and geography of decisions has made it difficult for many people to keep up with and support what needs to be done to keep our players and families safe,” Nagel said. “Ultimately, it feels like until recently, we were searching out and trying to piece together many of the protocols that we were required to follow.”

And then there are the arguments against having players compete with masks. Nagel points to a University of Wisconsin study, by a researcher who’s also chief medical advisor for the Elite Clubs National League youth soccer organization, that minimizes the likelihood of transmission on the field. “With respect to soccer, early data seems to suggest that the time spent in close proximity to other players during a soccer game is limited and falls far below the duration that is felt to represent sufficient exposure to result in viral transmission,” the report said.

Youth soccer players compete without masks in a season when a variety of jurisdictional rules have allowed some venues to permit players to compete without masks, while others mandate masks for players in competition. (Provided by Javier Arellano/Colorado Soccer Association)

He also points to the lack of reported transmissions of the virus among CSA members. 

“To date, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of interactions between players on the soccer field since June, when we first had been able to return to soccer,” Nagel said. “There’s not been one single reported transmission of COVID-19 between soccer players on the field from any club to the state association that we’re aware of. When I look at the risk of outdoor youth soccer, the risk is very, very low.”

CSA’s Shotts confirmed that the state organization had not received any reports of coronavirus spread via competition, though some kids reported being exposed outside of soccer and self-quarantined.

But Nagel expressed concern over potential health risks for players competing with masks.

“The potential for breathing (problems) while wearing a mask, like hyperventilation or hypoxia, those could be more detrimental and could happen more often than COVID-19 on the soccer field,” he said. 

Spires, of REAL Colorado, noted that literature on the subject hasn’t definitively determined if mask wearing could be harmful or not during intense physical activity, except for individuals with existing respiratory issues. 

“We’re trying to navigate it intelligently,” he said. “We’re operating in a prudent and diligent manner, so we don’t need to change anything on our side of town. I’m hoping we don’t get to a point where we have to, because I do feel mask wearing is restrictive at the very least. 

“And kids in an active, intense sport will be fiddling with it the whole time. But all around the field, if we can’t maintain social distancing, we want to be in a mask, to be protective of our community.”

Despite opposition to the player mask mandate, Nagel observed that once teams have worn them in competition, their objections tend to dissipate. The idea of change, he noted, is sometimes more difficult to accept than the change itself. Although some of his teams may have discussed their misgivings about traveling to Boulder, for instance, he’s not aware of a single instance in which Colorado Rapids youth teams have canceled games there.

“I’ve seen a few emails try to move games to our home field, some of them coming down to our field where they are a little more lenient in the protocols,” he said. “If that makes it easier on everybody, we’re fine to do that. But I have not seen anything where any games were forfeited or canceled due to the fact that people won’t go up there.”

COVID-19’s broad impact on youth soccer

The return to play under COVID-19 has had some broad impacts on Colorado youth soccer, including putting a dent into overall participation numbers, Shotts said, and even the availability of referees. But kids are playing — and so far, it appears, without any identified outbreaks.

The return-to-play protocol for competitive soccer organizations stressed a gradual approach that began with players working only on individual skills in a strictly defined space, with no sharing of equipment — including soccer balls. The process proceeded with three additional phases that gradually introduced more interaction and culminated with competitive play.

When coaches and organizational leaders talk about the importance of getting players back on the field, many cite another University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study that informed that state’s return to play for high school athletics.

A survey of 3,200 athletes from throughout the state, taken in May, found that physical activity levels had declined by 50%, leading to a spike in mental health effects such as depression and anxiety among about two-thirds of those surveyed.

So just getting competitors safely back on the pitch represents a step forward. There are still about three weeks left in the fall soccer season before thoughts turn to the spring campaign. Tryouts have already begun.

Despite the patchwork of regulations and angry correspondence aimed at him, Shotts, the CSA chief, is happy Colorado has been able to cobble together a season when some other states with more stringent policies have not.

But soccer at the youth level has taken some hits in the coronavirus era. For one, referees have become harder to recruit, and many turned in their whistles. Some older ones don’t want to risk exposure to the virus. Some of the younger ones cited abuse from coaches and parents. To try to fill the gap, the CSA has shortened the pathway to certification.

The pandemic also has reduced participation statewide. Shotts noted that before the virus, the association counted about 70,000 youth players, adult players and referees. Now the number is closer to 53,000. Some of that decline reflects younger age groups whose seasons were canceled while older age groups returned to play.

The mask mandates have made a difficult season that much more of a headache.

And that’s why, Shotts said, he initially tried to get a full variance from the state so all of the CSA’s thousands of players could compete without masks. He said that just a few days after he submitted the document, Gov. Jared Polis announced that he wouldn’t be considering any more requests.

Still, Shotts considers Colorado lucky to have returned to play, even with the current restrictions. 

“We’re a spoiled state,” he said. “I call it the entitlement of our society these days. We don’t want to follow stringent rules, but we want to play. But you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice to get to the goal of playing.”

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