CHICAGO — Gov. JB Pritzker defended his plans to limit high school and children’s sports this fall, saying they put children at risk — as well as everyone around them.
The policy has proven somewhat controversial, especially as other states in the Midwest and college football programs are allowing team sports to resume. But Pritzker and doctors, speaking during a Wednesday press conference, said allowing high-contact sports like football and hockey could lead to more cases among young people, their relatives and community members.
Putting a halt to team sports wasn’t an easy decision, Pritzker said, but it’s been done to save lives, especially as experts are already worried about a potential second wave of cases this fall.
“We all want our kids to be able to play sports. We all want our kids attending in person at school. And we all wish that this pandemic were over,” Pritzker said. “Unfortunately, until we’re able to make that third wish come true, our ability to make progress on the first two is somewhat limited.
“… Many sports have made adjustments to keep kids safe so that they can play with a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease. Some sports, like youth football, are more difficult and offer a higher likelihood of transmission.”
In late July, the state announced high school football, traditionally played in the fall, is being pushed back to the spring, when officials hope the pandemic will be more under control.
The same schedule changes were made for other high-contact sports that experts have said put athletes and officials at a higher risk of being exposed to coronavirus. Lower-risk sports where people don’t come into close contact, like tennis, have been allowed with some restrictions.
Critics have said the policy will prevent athletes from getting experience and attention, potentially limiting scholarship offers for colleges.
But even now, Illinois is seeing outbreaks from youth sports, including the lowest-risk ones, said Pritzker and Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Dr. Michael Lin, who works at Rush University Medical Center, said contact team sports like football can easily become “superspreading events” where multiple people are exposed to and become sick with coronavirus.
And it’s not just athletes who will be at risk: Each young person who plays has a parent, grandparent or sibling who could face serious illness from the disease, Lin said.
“Just one youth athlete showing up with the virus can start a chain reaction of spread that can quickly threaten the entire team,” Lin said. “This is not just theoretical. We’ve seen COVID-19 outbreaks in college and professional sports teams that have much more prevention resources at their disposal.”
Professional teams have been able to restart or start their seasons through extensive testing and having players live in “bubbles” to decrease their chance of exposure to COVID-19 — but even those teams have seen outbreaks.
Officials pointed to those outbreaks as an example of why play wouldn’t work in Illinois high schools, which have far fewer resources for testing and quarantining than do professional teams.
Pritzker also noted Illinois is doing the best among its neighboring states when it comes to fighting coronavirus, saying that’s because the state has largely been more cautious.
“Under no circumstances will I put children and their families at risk,” Pritzker said. “For those claiming that putting your child in danger is a personal choice, I say: This is a pandemic. This is a terrible and unprecedented moment in our country. Living together in a free society means neighbors protecting each other so we can all enjoy freedom and safety.
“… There are some individual life choices that have enormous, life-changing impact on others. While parents might choose to send their children out onto the playtime, I can tell you that someone else who becomes ill because of that decision wouldn’t call that your personal choice.”
Lin said parents should talk to their children about how delaying team sports and doing other things to prevent the spread of coronavirus “is an act of love and sacrifice to our fellow human beings.”
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