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What Youth Sports Are Safe to Play This Winter? Experts Weigh In

For many, the start of the winter season means the beginning of some beloved sports, like ice hockey, skiing, and more. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, those sports may look different, but experts say it's possible to participate in some activities so long as appropriate safety measures are taken.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued guidance on sports and considerations for youth sports, ranking different activities from lowest to highest risk. Practicing skill-building drills at home is the safest option; team practices are increasingly risky, and the riskiest behavior is "full competition between teams from different geographic areas," since that can lead to more spread of the coronavirus to different areas.

It's also important to make sure that participants aren't gathered closely together and can follow other best practices like masking and distancing. The CDC advises bringing extra masks, hand sanitizer, and other protective measures to any practice or event.

Are group sports safe?

Some group sports are safe: Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California, said that baseball came to mind as a safe option, since players don't pass each other much and can wear masks easily since players tend to only run short distances. Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia said that outdoor ice hockey could also be considered, since gaiters could be worn underneath a hockey helmet.

"What's probably safe is a sport that you can play in a mask," Liu explained, adding that sports with lots of running around could lead to masks becoming wet and therefore less effective.

Closer sports might pose more of a risk.

"When kids are running around and they're by each other, there's still going to be aerosolizing the virus potentially," Kraft explained, adding that droplets can linger in the air longer when the air is dry, as opposed to more humid, summery weather.

Another important factor in group sports is what's happening off the field: If players are gathering in dugouts or huddles, that could put them at risk for contracting the virus, especially if they aren't consistently wearing masks.

"Regardless of what happens on the field, people need to be cognizant of what's happening off the field or off the court," said Liu. "It doesn't help to be playing baseball, where you're all spaced out on the field, if you then go into the dugout together and everyone takes their mask off and is drinking water and sharing snacks, or if everybody goes out for pizza afterwards."

Kraft said that she had recently pulled one of her children from their group sport, since she was concerned about mask-wearing and other safety procedures.

"It's just one of those things where I think it's mostly safe, but we are just trying to minimize the risk, and we can't have that many things around us that are that iffy," she said.

Are indoor sports an option?

Experts don't advise participating in indoor sports unless extreme safety measures can be taken.

"Those are still high-risk," said Liu.

Some activities could be made safe, but only if they are generally distanced or incorporate masking: Liu suggested that ballet or indoor dance could be OK, since those are generally solo activities, and said that indoor swimming might be safe, if the lanes are distanced.

"You can't swim in a mask, and if people are in lanes close together indoors that's still pretty high-risk," she said.

What are the best ways to stay active this winter?

Just like earlier in the year, the best activities to keep in shape while staying safe are ones that can be done in a distanced setting or can incorporate masking and other precautions.

Liu suggested options like outdoor archery or shot-put throwing, sports that are more specialized but are often solo activities. Other activities, like skiing or ice skating, could be safe so long as participants avoid crowded lodges or locker rooms. Things like riding a bike or going for a run are also safe, so long as weather conditions allow for it.

Kraft added that any way to wear a mask or gaiter makes the sport even safer.

"Obviously while you're skiing, you're probably wearing a face covering of some sort over your mouth, because it's cold," she said. "If everyone wears masks or there's a way to keep everybody apart, that's pretty safe."

Liu said that an unexpectedly bright spot for her family had been the discovery of outdoor laser tag.

"For my own kids, it has been really fun and safe, and I think if kids do that and they're wearing masks, outdoors, and spaced away form each other, something like that can be pretty safe," she said. "Kids are running around, you want to stay away from each other, you're trying to hide from each other, and you're firing from a long distance."