Youth sports tournaments go on despite COVID dangers

The Lil’ Big South girls volleyball tournament was held at the Georgia World Congress Center last month with spaced seating for spectators and signs reminding people to wear masks. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
The Lil’ Big South girls volleyball tournament was held at the Georgia World Congress Center last month with spaced seating for spectators and signs reminding people to wear masks. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

40,000 expected for event this weekend at Georgia World Congress Center

The athletes have anticipated this contest for months, a chance to prove their skills in a national competition.

It won’t be like championships in years past. Spectators will be limited and strict safety measures will be in place.

That’s good enough for the thousands of families from across the country whose children will compete at this weekend’s Cheersport Nationals cheerleading competition at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“We are grateful just to be on the floor this year,” said an 18-year-old, who will participate with her team from Woodstock.

Organizers describe tight protocols: Anyone refusing to wear a mask gets ejected, with the exception of participants while they’re competing. Surfaces are sprayed and wiped. The indoor spaces are outsized, with such limited seating that sometimes a player can’t have both parents watching in person. Spectators must sit at least six feet apart and can only watch in shifts.

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But questions about the adequacy of safeguards come up every time young people have been brought together for competitions during the pandemic, and the massive cheerleading event has some medical experts raising alarms.

The cheer competition is expected to draw 40,000 people over three days, with close to 1,500 teams traveling to Atlanta from as far away as California, Maine and Chicago. And no matter how safely the event is run, attendees will share breathing space in hotels, restaurants, carpools and even convention center lobbies.

Coronavirus precautions at the Lil’ Big South volleyball tournament at the Georgia World Congress Center last month included blocked seats at courtside. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Coronavirus precautions at the Lil’ Big South volleyball tournament at the Georgia World Congress Center last month included blocked seats at courtside. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

They’re in town while Georgia is still racing to vaccinate the vulnerable as a more-contagious variant strain from United Kingdom gains a foothold and deaths mount. On Saturday the state set a new record for confirmed deaths reported in a single day, with 178.

“With that many competitors from other states, this event has the potential to be a ‘super-spreader’ event,” said Dr. Gary Freed, a professor of pediatrics for the Georgia campuses of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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Even though young people aren’t as susceptible to COVID illness as adults, they’ll be traveling and interacting with adults whom they could infect, he noted in an email.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, a Emory University professor of global health and epidemiology, also is concerned.

“We’re still in a very red zone, with a lot of community transmission,” he said. “We’re just coming down from peaks. That’s my biggest concern.”

Cheerleaders with Rockstar Cheer Atlanta in Woodstock practice on Feb. 3 for Cheersport Nationals 2021, a major cheerleading competition being held at the Georgia World Congress Center on Valentine's Day weekend. (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)
Caption
Cheerleaders with Rockstar Cheer Atlanta in Woodstock practice on Feb. 3 for Cheersport Nationals 2021, a major cheerleading competition being held at the Georgia World Congress Center on Valentine's Day weekend. (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Still, throughout the pandemic, indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball have gone on in metro Atlanta. Last month, New York ballet program Youth America Grand Prix put on a scholarship competition at the Infinite Energy Theater in Gwinnett County. That same weekend, the World Congress Center hosted a girls volleyball tournament that saw nearly 10,000 people rotate in and out.

The organizers and those participating are no more willing to back out than the NFL was willing to nix last weekend’s Super Bowl LV. Their reasons for going forward are much the same — their sport is a way of life, and taking it away would strip away one more semblance of normalcy during a difficult time in families’ lives, they say.

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Some athletes also have scholarship hopes to consider. And the gyms sending teams to compete are small businesses struggling to stay afloat.

“Obviously, we’ve all been hit by this pandemic,” said Carolyn Garrison, owner of Rockstar Cheer Atlanta in Woodstock, which will be sending eight teams to Cheersport. “I see more children with anxiety issues than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And I see more kids on the brink of breaking than I ever have. So for us, what we have said all year long is anything that we can do to get you into a competitive environment.”

The transmission risk

Atlanta has become a popular city for staging such tournaments partly because of Georgia’s permissive coronavirus regulations. Gov. Brian Kemp has limited gatherings to 50 people, but that doesn’t apply if they are spaced out six feet apart.

When basketball superstar LeBron James said last week he isn’t happy that the NBA plans to hold its All-Star Game in Atlanta in March, he lamented “we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open.”

“With that many competitors from other states, this event has the potential to be a ‘super-spreader' event."

- Dr. Gary Freed, a professor of pediatrics

The company behind Cheersport, Memphis-based Varsity Spirit, is the nation’s largest organizer of cheer competitions. Asked how the company will ensure Cheersport doesn’t contribute to community spread, a spokesman sent links to safety policies and said in a written statement, “Please bear in mind that these measures have been reviewed carefully and approved by all parties involved, including our health & safety team and the Georgia World Congress Center.”

Varsity Spirit had another large championship event scheduled late this month in Dallas, but recently announced it will take place virtually. The spokesman said that decision was made for Dallas but not for Atlanta because “every situation, venue and geography is unique.”

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Stephanie Britt, head coach and director of Cheer Savannah, described the company’s strict policies when she took teams to Varsity Spirit’s competitions at the Georgia International Convention Center in December and January. Once, when a uniformed security officer spotted her with her mask pulled down, he threatened to arrest her, she said.

“You got off stage, there was a full team of security that would not even let me hug my team as they exited the stage, and they made us get out of the building into the parking lot immediately,” Britt said.

A Youth America Grand Prix ballet scholarship competition was held at the Infinite Energy Theater in Gwinnett County last month with strict COVID-19 precautions. The organization required masks, limited the number of audience members, conducted temperature checks and allowed dancers to perform with or without masks. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
A Youth America Grand Prix ballet scholarship competition was held at the Infinite Energy Theater in Gwinnett County last month with strict COVID-19 precautions. The organization required masks, limited the number of audience members, conducted temperature checks and allowed dancers to perform with or without masks. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

But Britt said she won’t be taking teams to Atlanta this weekend. The event conflicts with some of her girls’ high school cheer events, and Britt said she’s also leery of the sheer number of people who will attend.

COVID-19 has become so prevalent among young people, she said she grapples with it constantly. At least a few of her cheerleaders test positive every week, she said. And after every competition, stories will circulate about coaches and athletes from other teams testing positive.

“You don’t know if it’s from the competition,” Britt said. “It just happens to be that, a few days after a competition, somebody is positive. On that same note, someone is positive every week anyway.”

Kenneth Tarver, center, owner of KB Sports, takes a reading of a basketball player's temperature before allowing him to enter the Hebron Christian Academy gymnasium for a basketball game in Dacula last month. Tarver brought his own cleaning supplies, thermometers and bottles of hand sanitizer to the gym. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Kenneth Tarver, center, owner of KB Sports, takes a reading of a basketball player's temperature before allowing him to enter the Hebron Christian Academy gymnasium for a basketball game in Dacula last month. Tarver brought his own cleaning supplies, thermometers and bottles of hand sanitizer to the gym. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Several other cheer coaches who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also described a constant challenge to prevent outbreaks in their gyms — with athletes often testing positive and other team members having to quarantine.

Varsity Spirit’s spokesman told the AJC the company isn’t aware of any reported COVID cases after its last event at the Georgia International Convention Center. Asked if the company knows of any transmissions at its competitions over the past 11 months, he said that’s tough to answer because “we can’t definitively say that we absolutely know that a transmission occurred at an event (or, for that matter, didn’t). It could have occurred anywhere people are present. And, an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”

WHAT THE CDC SAYS
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s safety guidelines for youth sports caution that indoor games pose more of a risk of COVID-19 infection and that high-intensity sports should be played outdoors. The CDC recently published a report describing how a pair of high school wrestling tournaments held in Florida in late December turned into super-spreaders, leading to at least 79 infections and the death of one adult.If sporting events must take place indoors, the CDC recommends ventilation and filtration systems that keep air moving, with open windows and doors to increase airflow.The World Congress Center, which has a $200,000 contract with Varsity Spirit to host Cheersport, says its HV/AC systems will have air constantly circulating within the two convention spaces where the tournament will take place. One of those spaces is more than 600,000 square feet, the other is more than 400,000 square feet, GWCC Chief of Police Paul Guerrucci said.Neither convention space shares ventilation with the state’s pop-up hospital for COVID-19 patients, which is in a different building a quarter mile from the competition area, the chief said.
A photo taken by an anonymous spectator shows attendees of the Lil' Big South girls volleyball tournament, held at the Georgia World Congress Center last month, crowded into a lobby as one group entered and another exited the exhibition hall. A GWCC spokeswoman said the situation lasted about 15 minutes on Jan. 16 and wasn't repeated during the rest of the event. (Special)
Caption
A photo taken by an anonymous spectator shows attendees of the Lil' Big South girls volleyball tournament, held at the Georgia World Congress Center last month, crowded into a lobby as one group entered and another exited the exhibition hall. A GWCC spokeswoman said the situation lasted about 15 minutes on Jan. 16 and wasn't repeated during the rest of the event. (Special)

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

The organizers of the Lil’ Big South girls volleyball tournament held at GWCC last month made efforts to keep track, polling the mostly Georgia-based teams who took part during the weeks afterward. Tournament Director and co-CEO Lauri Dagostino said of the 9,552 attendees, about 100 people have tested positive. One club had 3 of its 20 participants test positive, she said.

Dagostino said she has no way of knowing how much of that transmission, if any, occurred at the tournament, or if it happened at hotels, restaurants or in the players’ own communities.

Parents and guardians of the Promise Elite basketball team sit socially distanced during a KB Sports basketball game at Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula last month. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Parents and guardians of the Promise Elite basketball team sit socially distanced during a KB Sports basketball game at Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula last month. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Semblance of normalcy

Other sports league organizers say they’ve been able to safely hold indoor events this winter, without any known transmission cases, but it can be a management nightmare.

KB Sports, which runs a winter basketball league for teams in the Atlanta suburbs, has been spreading tournaments across multiple church gyms to keep occupancy levels down. A tournament in January brought in teams from eight other states.

Gyms have nearly doubled their hourly rates during the pandemic, KB Sports director Kenneth Tarver said, and he faces constant frustrations preventing opposing teams from shaking hands and commiserating after games. And parents often linger so long it throws off the tournament schedule, increasing his hourly costs.

Back in June, Tarver said he considered putting all games on hold, but he had parents urging him to crank back up.

“It’s giving the youth something they look forward to,” he said. “And even though it’s kind of hurting my pocket, I look at it as a positive for the kids.”

Sydney Newman, an Etowah High School senior who will compete at Cheersport with Rockstar Cheer Atlanta, said she thought about sitting this year out. But then she decided she didn’t want to lose one of her last connections to the pre-COVID world.

“Rockstar has been my family for the past six years. It’s really become my second home, and to lose that my senior year didn’t sit right with me,” Sydney, 18, said. “Without them, I’d be missing a part of my identity.”