Nfld. & Labrador

Team sports still benched while health restrictions loosen elsewhere in N.L.

News that team sports may not be allowed to restart until most of the province is vaccinated is getting a mixed reaction from the sports community.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald alluded to not lifting health measures until provincial population vaccinated

From left, Baseball St. John's executive director Kristyn Coley, Cricket NL president Rubin Deol and Hockey NL president Jack Lee have differing opinions on a possible extended delay for team sports. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador athletic community is calling foul after learning team sports might not be allowed to restart until most of the province is vaccinated.

On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald announced the province would move down a level in its tiered system of public health restrictions this weekend, but team sports are still benched for now, to the dismay of some.

"We're the only province, with the exception of Ontario, that's not allowing small group practice, at least," said Kristyn Coley, executive director of the St. John's Minor Baseball Association.

"We're seeing a lot of our provincial partners across the country right now that are further ahead than what we are, even though they have a worse situation than us."

All 10 Canadian provinces have seen cases involving the more contagious B117 variant. The St. John's metro-area outbreak linked to that strain has been receding, with zero new cases on Wednesday and single-digit, traceable numbers in the days prior.

As a result, the Avalon Peninsula will be moving from Alert Level 5 to Level 4, while the rest of the province will go from Level 4 to Level 3 at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

 

Team sports aren't permitted until Level 2, but that's at Fitzgerald's discretion. And while sports restarted in Level 2 last year, when the province was working itself out of its first lockdown, "the risk is different now," said Fitzgerald at Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing.

Fitzgerald didn't outright say athletics would be cancelled until most of the province is inoculated, but she hinted at it.

"It wouldn't be good of us to, sort of, go through what we've just gone through and learn the things we did about this variant and then not really change the way that we do things," she said.

'Heartbreaking'

Putting off sports until widespread vaccination would be "really heartbreaking," said Rubin Deol, president of Cricket NL, on Wednesday.

Most of the organization's 200 players come from the Indian subcontinent or Africa and rely on cricket to stay connected to community, he said. 

Corner Brook Minor Hockey was cancelled along with all other sports when the province shifted back to Alert Level 5 in February. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

"Over there, the culture of hiking, the culture of snowmobiling, that culture is not there. Mostly they play cricket," he said.

"That's … a pretty big part of the outdoor life, playing cricket, so if that is restricted — and rightfully so — it will be tough on them mentally."

Take your stick off the ice

Hockey NL president Jack Lee said it's disappointing that their provincial championships will likely be cancelled for a second year in a row, but, he considers the province fortunate to have had any hockey this year, when recreational leagues were outright cancelled in other parts of the country.

"I'm sure lots of hockey people are frustrated, not only hockey people, but sports people in general are frustrated with what's going on," he said. "But at the end of the day, we're in a world pandemic."

The summer cricket league Avengers are pictured after their fifth championship win in six seasons. (Submitted by Rubin Deol)

Smaller communities have taken ice off their rinks, he said, anticipating lockdown will last through the remainder of the season.  

He acknowledges the risk of spread in hockey, given the sport's physical contact.

"The last thing we want to do is certainly have an outbreak in hockey or an outbreak in sports."

Play ball?

While hockey was temporarily on the ice, baseball and cricket are waiting for word on when they'll be able to have their summer seasons. 

The province has said it should have all willing adults vaccinated by early July, but that would be well into the season and organizers will need time to plan, if the province is, in fact, waiting until vaccinations are in arm to restart team sports. 

Three of the four vaccines approved are only for people 18 and older, while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may be administered to anyone 16 years old and up.

What Fitzgerald has done for the province, in terms of containing two outbreaks and otherwise keeping the case count low has been "nothing short of inspiring," Coley said.

Like Deol and Lee, she supports regulations set out by the chief medical officer of health, but as baseball organizations in other parts of the country start gearing up for their seasons with an understanding of what to prepare for, she questions discrepancies among provincial public health measures and sport guidelines.

"The big question right now is why can we, in this province, not do what all the other provinces are doing? Is it a lack of commitment from the province that sport is important, or is it that we're just being a little bit more cautious than everyone else?" she said. 

"I just think there's some lack of communication and commitments on that level."

According to Coley, there were zero COVID-19 cases linked to baseball last season and teams went above and beyond the prescribed restrictions.

"I know that if they tell us we need to do A, B, C, D, E — if it's anything like last year — we'll do A, B, C, D, E, F, G," she said. "We'll do whatever we have to do to make it work."

The cricket season ends in September. If the province gives the go-ahead any time before then, Deol says, he'll organize a season — however short. 

Cricket athletes are spread out. It's a low contact sport. There's one communal ball but, Deol said, athletes kept hand sanitizer in their pockets last season for when they came in contact with that ball.

Like Coley, he said cricket played by the rules last summer and he hopes consideration will be given to lower contact sports so they can have a season and play by the rules again this year.

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