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Thousands of young athletes and fans descend upon central Indiana, causing COVID-19 concern

Hundreds of teams are descending on Indiana this weekend as health officials worry about the impact on Indiana's battle against COVID-19.

WESTFIELD, Ind — Youth travel sports is a big business in central Indiana. So getting players and teams back on local courts and ball diamonds is great news for the sports venues, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that rely on the summer sporting events.

But as hundreds of teams descend on central Indiana this weekend - bringing with them thousands of athletes and their families - some local families and health officials worry about the impact on Indiana’s battle against COVID-19.

“I do worry. There’s a lot of people coming from all parts of the U.S., and I’m really concerned individuals can be bringing COVID,” said Jim Ginder, health education specialist at the Hamilton County Health Department. “My personal opinion is a lot of people are becoming a little more lax with the [CDC] recommendations that keep people safe.”

In the past ten days, Hamilton County has seen a signifcant increase in both COVID-19 cases and ER visits, according to COVID-19 trend data tracked by the Regenstrief Institute. It’s why some parents believe it is not the ideal time for Westfield, Fishers and Noblesville to be welcoming 350 youth basketball teams from places like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Louisville and Cincinnati.

“Some of those places are still dealing with very high cases of the virus and are not allowing youth sports tournaments in their cities, but you’ve got these tournaments that are just telling everyone to come to Indiana and play here because we’re open for business,” a coach for an Indiana AAU basketball team told 13News. “We’re trying to send our kids back to school in three weeks, and now you’ve got all these kids and families mingling with other kids and families from areas that are still considered hot spots. I don’t like it.” The coach asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by tournament officials.

Among large youth sports tournaments taking place in central Indiana this weekend: a USA Youth Hoops boys basketball tournament at four different sites in Hamilton County, a USSSA softball tournament at multiple sites in and around Columbus, and a massive Tournament of Champions girls basketball event at the Indianapolis Convention Center that is expecting to attract more than 9,000 people.

“The reality is, the more people we have, the higher risk we have of COVID  being transmitted,” Ginder told 13News. “I’m OK with it if each of the locations has a COVID plan in place that has been approved by the health department and they really stick to that plan.”

The Hamilton County Health Department says it has worked closely with the Pacers Athletic Center, Finch Creek Field house and the Noblesville Boys & Girls Club to develop COVID-19 plans for this month’s youth sports events.

At the Pacers Athletic Center, players and coaches must undergo temperature checks before every game. An emphasis is placed on social distancing, so each team is allowed to bring only 22 people inside the facility for each that number includes all players, coaches and spectators – and bleachers are marked so that fans must sit 6 feet apart. Only four of the facilities eight courts are being used at any given time during the tournament. It means a large field house that is often packed shoulder-to-shoulder during one of these tournaments now looks pretty empty.

“We’d usually have about 750 people in here, but it's only 250 people allowed in at a time because of the governor’s [emergency] order,” explained USA Youth Hoops director Matt Arnold. “When a team plays and they get done, they have to leave the building immediately. The main thing is we got to keep people social distanced.”

 Arnold said the tournament organizers are also providing plenty of hand sanitizer, wiping down surfaces regularly and cleaning restrooms every 30 minutes. Players and fans must wait outside the building until it is time for their team to take the court. Asked if it is a good idea for kids to be traveling to other cities to play basketball during a pandemic, he shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head.

Credit: WTHR Bill Ditton

“It's tough. We have people who want to play. For those who want to play we're going to let them play. For those that don’t... basically we're just going to let people do what they feel safe doing,” he said.

Wearing masks inside the Pacers Athletic Center is recommended, but not required by the facility or by the Hamilton County Health Department. Few spectators were wearing a mask when 13News watched play Friday afternoon. Indoor sports venues in Marion County, such as the Indianapolis Convention Center, do require spectators to wear a mask due to a recent order by Indianapolis’ mayor.

 Ginder hopes spectators will wear masks to the youth sports events. He says anyone feeling sick or who has had recent exposure to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 should stay away.

“If you have doubts, just don’t go. If you do go, ask to see the facility’s COVID plan so you can see what they are supposed to be doing and whether they are following it. Everyone should still be taking precautions,” Ginder said.