Recreational sports are back in Manitoba but COVID-19 has changed how they’re played.
It’s a strange time and some of the concessions being made to adapt to the new reality are just as peculiar — from sanitizing baseballs halfway through every inning, to wearing disposable shoes for bowling, to banning high-fives and sunflower seeds.
“Everything’s off the wall right now. It’s going to be a different world this year,” said Steve Mymko, executive director of Buhler Recreation Park on the west edge of Winnipeg.
Under Phase 2 of the province’s reopening strategy, which began Monday, many sports can resume but a plan for minimizing physical contact must be in place.
The province first imposed restrictions in March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, shutting down non-essential services and sporting activities. As of Friday, Manitoba has recorded 300 cases, with seven deaths.
The 160-acre Buhler park has diamonds for softball and baseball, athletic fields for soccer, flag football, ultimate sports and lacrosse, and a full-service licensed canteen. In a typical summer, it’s a hive of activity. This year most of that is off the table.
In fact, the tables are gone.
Mymko removed them from the site, along with bleachers, to discourage gathering and because “we can’t wipe everything down.” Sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts, chewing tobacco and anything else that requires a person to spit is banned.
Players are required to sign waivers exempting their league from responsibility should they contract coronavirus and the dugout benches are off limits — players need to bring their own lawn chairs and sit behind it.
“You can’t separate players enough to be six feet apart and have them on the bench. It just doesn’t work,” Mymko said.
When games end, teams need to leave as soon as possible to avoid overlap with those coming in. For that same reason, it’s unlikely the park will host any tournaments this year.
The main washrooms will be locked and portable toilets will be brought in.
“It’ll be one person per potty,” Mymko said. “I’d rather be overcautious than undercautious.”
Over at Dakota Lanes bowling alley in Winnipeg, disposable shoes are being offered “for those that don’t feel comfortable wearing shoes that 1,000 other people have worn,” said owner Chad VanDale.
More like slippers, they slide over a person’s socks and are good for about two uses.
“They’re not constructed well enough for somebody to use them forever so they will fall apart. But you know, it’s $4 to rent shoes or $5.99 to have your own pair,” VanDale said.
Bowlers are asked to stop at a check-in desk, where staff will spray their hands with sanitizer, then go straight to an assigned lane, where staff will bring shoes and any food or drink orders.
When done, bowlers leave everything at the lane for staff to clean and wipe. Balls will be sanitized after every game but not during because only small groups can bowl together and they are presumably comfortable around each other, VanDale said. Vacant lanes will separate different groups.
Bobby St. Laurent, president of the Kildonan Co-ed Softball League, said his sport is played with distance between most athletes, but those at home plate will need to adjust. Catchers will be two metres from batters and umpires two metres from catchers.
The only other time there is close contact is during a tag or when a runner is on base, but that won’t be a problem, St. Laurent said.
“The government’s guidelines are that you can have brief contact and their definition of brief is 10 minutes or less.”
Players will sanitize their hands between innings; balls will be sanitized every half inning.
So long, celebrations
Other things removed from the game include socializing and some traditional celebrations.
“If somebody hit a home run you’d all line up and give them a high five when they reached home, but that ain’t happening anymore,” St. Laurent said. “And at the end of the game you’d say three cheers and shake hands. Well you’re not doing that again.”
Canteens at parks like Buhler will be open but with minimal offerings, and people won’t be allowed to hang around and mingle.
“For most people, that camaraderie is more fun than the actual game itself, so that’s unfortunate,” St. Laurent said.
For Mymko, it’ll hurt the park’s bottom line.
“That’s where we make our money — having people hanging around and enjoying an icy-cold beverage and hotdog,” he said. “But we gotta get ’em out. These aren’t debatable rules. It’s not 2019 anymore.”
‘Struggling to bring the game back’
Not all activities can make a comeback just yet because there’s no avoiding the contact.
“We are struggling to bring the game back to how we know it to be played. The social distancing component is one that for basketball is virtually impossible to overcome,” said Adam Wedlake, executive director of Basketball Manitoba.
For now, it will be restricted to individual skills development with “one player, one ball, one hoop, one coach,” Wedlake said. That plan is still awaiting approval from Canada Basketball, Sport Manitoba and the province.
Curtis Brigham, owner and head coach of the Winnipeg Academy of Mixed Martial Arts, said his club will stay silent.
“None of our classes will be able to work yet. Every class we have is based on human contact, whether it’s through the boxing aspects or wrestling,” he said.
“We don’t have machines. We don’t even have a lot of punching bags. Without human contact, we don’t really have a business.
“I’m not asking for a full return to the way things were before, but if we could have one contact partner for the entire class, or even for the month — paired off so that they’re only breaking social distancing with one other individual — that would allow me to run some classes.”
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