LUMBERTON — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been plenty of variance on the decisions made by different government organizations, even in neighboring towns or counties.
This is even true at the recreation sports level in Robeson County. Youth sports remains stalled in the county’s two largest agencies, run by the county and by the City of Lumberton, but the Town of Pembroke is currently holding a fall baseball and soccer season.
Pembroke decided that social distancing could be maintained at its complex, and the town approved for activities to resume.
“I called around everybody to see who was and who wasn’t playing. The biggest thing for me was convincing council we’d use social distancing,” said Phil Harper, Pembroke director of parks and recreation. “At first (council) was a little bit concerned, but they opened up and they were good with it, based on us using all the safety measures possible.”
The department is now two weeks into the season. All coaches and players have their temperature taken upon arrival at the Pembroke Recreation Complex, spectators are encouraged to wear face coverings, and there are sanitizer stations throughout the park and signs promoting social distancing.
The extra protocols in place because of the virus require the department to use extra staffing for tasks such as the temperature checks and extra park maintenance, Harper said.
Parents whose kids are playing in Pembroke are glad their children have something to participate in, and feel they are safe in doing so.
“I’m glad, because we’ve missed out on a whole lot for this year. I’m excited to get back on the field,” said Jessica Locklear, who has three children in the Pembroke program. “I feel like they’re safe. The cups situation, nobody’s drinking behind one another, everybody’s got their own individual bottles, and they’re not in the dugout crowded up on one another, they’re spaced out.”
“There’s been a few people who said they didn’t want their kid to play, and you’ve got to respect that,” Harper said. “But for the most part everybody’s excited to get their kids back out.”
For the county’s two larger recreation departments, plus the Lumberton Youth Baseball Association and Lumberton Softball Association, playing a fall season would have presented a greater challenge, and ultimately it was decided to not be feasible.
“You can’t really compare us to the town of Pembroke, because to their 100 kids, we may have 1,000. We serve the whole county,” said Wendy Chavis, Robeson County recreation director. “We’re not ready budget-wise; there’s no way we could sanitize 1,000 kids in basketball. We’re doing some virtual stuff right now, until someone gets a better handle of this COVID.”
While some government restrictions have been lightened over the last few weeks, its timing wasn’t favorable fall seasons.
“Because of that time frame that (the state of North Carolina) entered Phase 3, it prevented us from doing our fall sports, which would have been soccer and football,” said Tim Clark, athletic director for the City of Lumberton. “Because Phase 2 was extended so many times, we missed that time frame of when we could have started our fall programs.”
Clark plans to submit two proposals to the city’s recreation commission for basketball season. One would be to hold a season with games played on weekdays with no spectators allowed, so the city’s youth could play but the congregate nature of spectatorship would not be a factor. The other would be to hold clinic-style instructional events in lieu of a season, with no more than 25 individuals in attendance for each per state guidelines.
“I proposed, when we were in Phase 2.5, I basically made the same proposal with soccer and flag football, to offer clinic-style (events), so we could offer something,” Clark said. “But the (Lumberton) Recreation Commission, they decided to err on the side of caution and follow the guidance at that time.”
Since the county uses school gyms, unlike the city which uses recreation centers, the logistics are that much more complicated, since Public Schools of Robeson County will remain in remote learning through at least the end of the semester.
“We could have 16 to 20 gyms open, going on a Saturday morning for Saturday basketball, so it’s just not feasible right now,” Chavis said. “There’s no way we could keep our kids safe and operate our program the way we need to. So we’re still on hold and it’s driving me insane, and I know our kids are sitting out there idle, and they’re getting in trouble and that’s not what we want.
Indeed, the biggest disappointment for each agency is that the kids they serve lack the activity that sports provides, and many are struggling as they sit idle.
“We’re that outlet for some of these children; we’re they’re only outlet, so that’s disheartening to me right now,” Chavis said. “It feels like they’re left behind because we aren’t doing anything with them.”
“It is unfortunate for all those groups of kids that love to play baseball and softball and soccer and football and cheerleading,” said Bruce Mullis, treasurer of the Lumberton Youth Baseball Association. “And all of those activities that we would have been doing, along with all those other things they’re missing out on, getting to go to the fair, Halloween, and being in school instead of being at home in front of computer trying to learn that way.”
While the LYBA is run differently since it is not part of a municipal or county government, Mullis said a poll of parents about a possible fall season showed most were not interested in having a fall season.
The LYBA was set to host the Dixie Youth World Series in 2021, but that has been pushed back a year to 2022 as the originally-scheduled 2020 host of Laurel, Mississippi will now host in 2021 after the event was canceled this year.
But even as the event will still be held 12 months after it was originally planned, an opportunity will still be missed for some of Lumberton’s youth.
“We’ll have a group of kids, especially the kids that’ll be 12 years old next year, who could’ve participated in a World Series, they’re going to miss out on that opportunity, because they will have aged out in 2022,” Mullis said. “They’ll still have an opportunity to play ball, and make a postseason team with Dixie Boys (age 13-14), but they’ve lost that year of growth and training and practice and skill set development by not getting to play this year.”
With nearly all of 2020 now lost for most of the area’s recreational sports, leaders are still trying to remain positive that they’ll be able to get back on the field and court sooner rather than later.
“I’m trying to be positive, trying our best to be positive,” Chavis said. “This is why we all do recreation, why we’ve all been here as long as we’ve all been here, because we love providing a service to our kids, our youth in the county. We’re their outlet, and I’ve got to keep positive for that.”