The Nelson Softball League would have gotten its summer season off and running this week under normal circumstances, but these are hardly normal times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted the sporting world at every level, from professional venues all the way down to local recreation leagues that many youth and adults in small communities love to take part in.
“In the summer, (softball) is pretty much our whole lives,” Osakis’ Colter Fortenberry said. “I play three leagues and sub in another league on Thursdays. Then we play at least one tournament every other weekend, and baseball too on top of that. For most of us, it’s our entire summer and how we see our friends. We just want the freedom to be able to do that.”
Gov. Tim Walz allowed Minnesota’s stay-at-home-order to lapse after May 17, but with exceptions. Schools, restaurants, bars, salons and gyms are some of the entities that remain closed through at least the end of the month.
Minnesotans are starting to go back out in their communities, but for some, the wait for opportunities to do that is reaching a breaking point. Fortenberry and others who love softball in the summers got together at the Nelson fields on May 18 for a scrimmage.
It was nothing organized through an official league. Guys and girls put out a call through text messaging and social media, and whoever wanted to show up and play could do so.
There were about 25 players and another 10 fans or so who watched from the grass outside the fence. Music rang from the dugout as the teams played two five-inning games until dark. The hope and expectation from players there is that the official Nelson Softball League will get going around June 1, but many did not want to wait that long.
“Honestly, when this all started, no one really knew how bad it was,” Fortenberry said. “If you can go to Walmart and Menards and places like that where there’s thousands of people going through every day, I don’t see why you can’t be out in the fresh air and play some ball. Most of the people we’re playing with are people we’ve been around (during the pandemic). Most of us aren’t too worried, and if you are worried, just don’t come.”
Much still unclear
Exactly what kinds of opportunities will be there this summer for youth and adult recreation is still up in the air, and in many cases, dependent on what people are looking for.
Casual summer leagues such as sand volleyball opportunities are popular for adults through local bars and restaurants. Many of the businesses that host those leagues are still waiting to hear if volleyball leagues will be possible at any stage of their re-opening.
The summer Legion baseball season has already been canceled, but the Minnesota Baseball Association is pushing to get in an amateur baseball season across the state. The MBA is currently allowing teams to practice as long as the city gives the OK for field use, teams practice social distancing and groups are limited to 10 people. The MBA has sent multiple letters in recent weeks to Walz and state legislators explaining how they plan on operating under new safety guidelines and seeking clarity on if and when their season could start.
Locally, teams in the Resorters Baseball League typically draw few fans and oftentimes field teams with nine or 10 players. It’s a scenario the MBA says is similar for a lot of teams, which they say allows for proper social distancing at these venues.
As of May 20, the Alexandria city website said all city facilities are closed to foot traffic, but actually enforcing that within open park systems is difficult. Bathroom facilities at city parks are also open as of May 19.
Public works division director Bill Thoennes said facilities such as Knute Nelson Memorial Ballpark that is home to many Alexandria baseball teams and Fillmore-Dean Melton Park, which the Alexandria Area Baseball Association utilizes for its youth leagues, will be ready if teams are allowed to go.
“We’re all set to go that way,” Thoennes said. “We have signs that we would post stating the rules and regulations that are required at the time.”
The Alexandria Public Works Department has 13 playgrounds in their parks system. Those playgrounds are closed as of early this week, but that is likely to change soon.
“We’re hoping by the end of the week to have the playgrounds open,” Thoennes said. “We’re just waiting for the signs to get made with the rules and regulations. We’re getting a ton of calls.”
Brad Bonk, the Douglas County Park Superintendent, said smaller playgrounds at the county parks are open for people to enjoy at their own risk right now. The exception to that is at Lake Brophy County Park west of Alexandria, where the playground is currently closed.
“We are having discussions about Brophy Park’s playground,” Bonk said. “The biggest issue is its popularity and the number of people that gather there.”
Opportunities for summer recreation programs?
Lynn Jenc, the community education director for Alexandria Public Schools, said on May 19 that her department is getting information almost daily on tweaks, recommendations and mandatory guidelines they have to follow.
During Wednesday’s press briefing by Gov. Walz to update Minnesota’s COVID-19 response, it was announced that youth sports can practice in individual sports or those with 10 or fewer participants, but no games are allowed.
“The clarity is slowly starting to come out in various programs, but it’s slow and very purposeful,” Jenc said. “We all want our kids to be able to participate in activities. We just need to make sure we are following the guidance, and that we keep our families safe.”
Alexandria’s school year ends on June 2, with their summer programming starting on June 3. The programs that people can currently sign up for through community education are activities where participants can abide by safety guidelines set forth by the Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Minnesota Department of Education.
“Some are 100% online, some are enrichment-type of courses,” Jenc said. “Those courses we know we are able to follow the guidelines because they’re not sharing materials back and forth.”
That’s where trying to offer team-sport opportunities for kids and adults becomes a challenge. Basketball, volleyball, football, tennis, baseball, softball, lacrosse, swimming lessons, and strength-training opportunities where participants are touching equipment are examples of programs that might have been offered that are now very much uncertain.
“We are hoping to receive guidance from the commissioner and the governor this week, but I cannot guarantee that we’ll have clear guidance when it comes to youth or adult sports,” Jenc said. “If the guidelines remained near what they currently are, we do have some potential provisional ideas, but until we get guidance, we’re putting a pause on recreational programming and specifically team-sport programming.”
Jenc said that other entities are allowed to rent out the public-school facilities starting on June 3, but any organization that uses the facilities is required to follow the same safety guidelines.
The Minnesota Department of Health’s guidelines for all Minnesotans right now to limit the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask, get tested if not feeling well, stay home if sick, wash hands and don’t gather in groups of larger than 10 people.
“We do have plans in place for some of the recreational opportunities to move them forward, but they would look substantially different,” Jenc said. “In the end, it’s about the health and safety of our students, of our adults, of our community.”
(Editor's note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. on May 20 to reflect more recent information after Gov. Tim Walz's afternoon press briefing)