Given the rising COVID-19 case numbers from the long-feared second wave of the coronavirus, which of these two sporting events for New Jersey athletes makes more sense to you:
A) An in-state swim meet next week where local high school athletes compete in a near-empty aquatic center, arriving and leaving in their bathing suits to avoid using the locker rooms, in the hopes of finishing with a good enough time to land them a college scholarship.
B) A youth football tournament in Kissimmee, Florida, where 206 teams from 25 states — including at least seven from New Jersey — will gather for a week of events that includes a party at Universal Studios so middle-school kids can bring home a trophy and have an experience we’d all want our kids to enjoy in normal times.
Well, if you answered “A,” know that you also picked the sporting event that isn’t happening because of coronavirus restrictions.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
Let’s start with the swimmers, because too often during our nine months of living in the pandemic, we’ve focused on people doing the wrong things. Erin Cavanagh has done the right things. She is a swimmer for the powerhouse Jersey Wahoos club program, a senior at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken who will attend Harvard next year.
Cavanagh and her teammates have taken strict measures to keep themselves safe because, they understood, the sport they love would be taken away if they failed. Temperature checks. Social distancing. Masks at all times when not in the pool. If you’ve known high-level swimmers, this will not surprise you because the sport requires a fanatical commitment.
“Being safe is what kept us going,” Cavanagh said. “I’m sure all sports are taking the right precautions, but just the essence of swimming — you’re in a pool, it’s chlorinated, you’re super spread out.”
And, based on one study, it was working. The New Jersey Swim Safety Alliance tracked 60 indoor pools in the state since they reopened July 2 with 25% capacity and found that 327,316 people used the facilities with zero COVID-19 cases reported from using the pools.
“Of all the sports that are safe during a respiratory virus, (swimming) is as safe as it gets,” said Dan Mullin, whose daughter, Sydney, swims for the Wahoos. “There is nothing out there that’s safer — and I think the data shows that.”
Mullin isn’t just a dad who wants college recruits to see his daughter swim. He is also an emergency medicine physician in Philadelphia who has spent much of the past nine months on the front lines fighting COVID-19. If he thought swim meets were going to spread a virus that caused what he called “the worst experience” of his professional life, he would say so.
So why did Gov. Phil Murphy, in his decision to put a four-week pause on indoor sports on nearly all levels, lumping swimming with sports that have been clearly traced to outbreaks such as ice hockey? Especially when Murphy promised to take more of a “surgical” approach to lockdowns in the pandemic’s second wave?
“We have seen outbreaks related to numerous youth sports — but it is not the number of outbreaks alone that guides our recommendation,” a spokeswoman for Murphy said in an emailed reply to those questions. “It is the knowledge that it is not only the individual sport which may drive risk, but the mere bringing together of individuals. And this congregating of individuals does not only occur during the sporting event itself, but in the car pools, locker rooms, pre/post event get togethers, and other social events related to athletic events.”
The reply was three paragraphs long but didn’t include one key word: Swimming.
Paul Donovan, coach of the Jersey Wahoos, said most of the reasons cited — car pools, locker rooms, socializing, etc. — already have been eliminated. He said if the state gave specific instructions on limits at meets or practices, swimming officials would find a way to adjust. That never happened, which has led to understandable frustration.
“I have no doubt that they’re trying to do their best to protect people,” Donovan said. “But lumping all indoor sports together is not a very surgical approach to the problem, if you ask me.”
At stake, he said, are college scholarships. This is a key evaluation period for college recruits, and USA Swimming’s winter championships — set to take place for New Jersey swimmers in Voorhees next week — were a chance for high school juniors to impress coaches.
Maybe you don’t think that’s a big deal. Maybe, with cases spiking and hospitals starting to fill up, you think that everyone — including young athletes — need to suck it up and make sacrifices again. And, given the dire warnings, you might be right.
But how do you think the swimmers will feel when they read about the American Youth Football National Championships?
The Asbury Park Press first reported that seven teams from the state, despite Murphy’s pleas that no residents travel out of state other than for reasons “essential for your daily life,” will head to Florida to participate in the week-long event.
“You can’t live in a bubble for the next year,” said Joe Spina, president of the Stafford Township-based Southern Ram youth football club. “These kids are 13 or 14 years old. It’s not like they know what they’re missing — they weren’t on the trip in years past — so this is all a blessing to them.”
Spina said it was important to give kids in the community some sense of normalcy, and no one begrudges them that. Teams all over the state, from the recreational level through high schools, accomplished that — in a reasonable way.
There is a big difference between letting kids compete locally and traveling to Florida to chase some mythical “national championship” during a pandemic. Spina said he’s more worried about the flight to Florida than the event itself, adding that nearly all the events will be held outdoors. That’s all well and good.
Still: How does anyone think that bringing tens of thousands of people from around the country to one event is a good idea right now?
Murphy, of course, can’t prevent the New Jersey teams from going. It’s the parents who should have seen the absurdity of this and taught their kids a lesson that, sometimes, everyone has to make sacrifices for the greater good of society.
COVID-19 is taking hold of our state again. If only common sense did, too.
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Steve Politi may be reached at [email protected].