In pandemic, sports play on the brink | Coronavirus

In a normal season, the Nashua Silver Knights would have spent the majority of the Futures College Baseball League’s best-of-three championship series away from home, after finishing behind playoff opponent Worcester in the regular season standings.

This wasn’t a normal season.

Because of New Hampshire’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic and greater restrictions on outdoor gatherings in Massachusetts, the Silver Knights played the whole championship series in their own park, Holman Stadium, where last weekend they defeated the Bravehearts before about 700 fans to take the title, two games to one.

The Silver Knights, who have been praised for their diligence during the pandemic, worked closely with the state and Nashua on their safety protocols. Crowds were restricted to 25% of the stadium’s capacity, fans were required to wear face coverings when not in their seats, the team agreed to report any positive cases to the city (there were none), and many umpires, coaches and bench players wore masks.

Their COVID-19 Readiness Plan filled 22 pages.

Umpire Gary Noyes, founder and umpire supervisor of the Granite State Umpires Association, said at other games around the state, preventing community spread of the virus has not been nearly as high a priority.

“To be honest, there wasn’t much social distancing,” said Noyes, who this summer has umpired about 70 games, ranging from the Cal Ripken level to high-school-age play.

As participants and spectators from states with stricter COVID-19 regulations have made New Hampshire an amateur and youth sports destination, not all of them have been as rigorous about precautions as their hosts. Despite that, the state has seen practically no sports-related incidents at this point.

Besides a youth hockey player who attended a camp at The Rinks at Exeter earlier this month, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said the state is not aware of any COVID-19 related issues tied to sports.

An out-of-state resident youth hockey player, who was unaware that he contracted COVID-19 at a Connecticut tournament July 31-Aug. 2, participated in a camp at the Exeter facility on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4, general manager Chet Murch previously told a New Hampshire Union Leader correspondent.

“By all accounts, the incident in Exeter is an isolated matter that was remedied through education of the guidance with the rink owner,” Sununu said in a statement. “It would be imprudent to use one incident that was adequately addressed by the state to overthrow a system that has worked very effectively in almost all circumstances.”

Exeter Health Officer James Murray said he has received calls about the number of cars with out-of-state license plates in The Rinks at Exeter parking lot.

Although the facility has complied with the governor’s order, he senses residents are nervous because of other states’ records with the disease.

Mass. sports exodus

Under the state’s current amateur and youth sports guidelines, only New England-based teams are allowed to compete in New Hampshire. In the rare case of an athlete or coach from outside the region belonging to a New England team, the athlete or coach would be allowed to travel with the team if they provide formal certification that they quarantined for 14 days in their home state before coming to New Hampshire, Sununu said.

By contrast, neighboring Massachusetts does not allow “high-risk” sports like basketball, hockey, football, wrestling and lacrosse to play games or scrimmage. So Bay State teams in some of those sports have headed to New Hampshire to compete this summer.

“Due to the pandemic, we are always vigilant about dynamics that bring out of state residents to New Hampshire,” Sununu said in a statement. “However, allowing New England teams to play and host events in New Hampshire is less worrying given the current COVID-19 data and protocols in the region.”

“There’s concern about people coming in from areas where there are clear higher documented (COVID-19) cases,” said environmental consultant and former Democratic state Rep. Mindi Messmer, who is running for Executive Council and has been critical of Sununu, a Republican.

Ted Houlihan, a member of the Granite State Umpires Association and president of the New Hampshire Baseball Umpires Association, said he thinks fans who have not worn face coverings even when close together felt safe because they were outside.

That’s understandable, if not 100% safe, said Dr. Rich DiPentima, a 30-year health executive who was New Hampshire’s chief of communicable disease epidemiology from 1994 to 1998.

“People get a little more — I don’t want to say careless, but more let their guard down outside, which is OK,” DiPentima said. “When I go outside for a walk with my wife, I don’t wear a mask when nobody is around me. If you get into a community where people start to congregate and you are getting close to a substantial number of people, the whole dynamic changes.

“It is safer but (people) still need to be cognizant of the fact they need to maintain a certain amount of distance from other people and not say, ‘I’m outside so I can do whatever I want.’”

NHMS skates clear

Enough time has elapsed since the Exeter incident and the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Aug. 2 to make it unlikely an outbreak related to either event might occur, Sununu said New Hampshire Division of Public Health officials have told him.

The race at NHMS was the first fan-attended sporting event at a major level in New England since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Sununu permitted the track to operate at up to 35% capacity for the race, up to about 19,000 fans, though track officials expected between 12,000 and 14,000 to attend. Attendance figures were not released.

Shannon Stephens, the speedway’s communications manager, said approximately 90% of the spectators resided in New England.

Loudon Fire Chief and Health Officer Tom Blanchette said COVID-19 cases have not spiked locally since the NASCAR race.

“If you look at the data and the facts, there has been no overwhelming negative reaction from the event or outcome from the event,” Blanchette said.

Before the race, NHMS officials hosted a walk-through of the speedway to highlight safety protocols, including hand sanitizer stations, signage detailing safety requirements, decals demarcating safe social distance, and restroom attendants on hand to do frequent cleaning.

Blanchette said fire department personnel on race day did observe some congestion on the concourse in concession lines.

How much caution enough?

Most of the games Houlihan umpired this summer involved the New Hampshire COVID Baseball League, which featured six American Legion and five AAU in-state teams with high school and college players 19 or younger as of May 1. Seacoast United, which halted its baseball program’s activity when one of its teen players tested positive for COVID-19 after a game earlier this month, had two teams in the NHCBL.

The NHCBL canceled the final game of its best-of-three championship series between the Upper Valley Anglers and Dover Greentoppers after a Dover player might have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, the Valley News reported.

“The state is aware of the league’s decision,” Deputy Public Health Director Patricia Tilley said in a statement. “There is no evidence at this time to suggest that this incident was part of a baseball-related outbreak. Based on the reports we have seen, the league properly followed the guidance and may have been even more protective than what the state’s guidance requires.”

Such heightened precautions have proven largely effective in the sports arena so far.

Epidemiologist DiPentima said he thinks New Hampshire’s sports safety protocols “to some extent are working,” but the situation could change quickly.

“We have to keep watching the numbers, keep seeing what is going on and be able to respond quickly and appropriately if things change,” DiPentima said. “It’s a dynamic process. It’s not something that is static.”