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South Salt Lake Journal

South Salt Lake recreation holds first kids’ sporting event under strict safety guidelines

Mar 08, 2021 11:40AM ● By Brian Shaw

By Brian Shaw | [email protected]

On the final night, the kids ran around the field at Central Park kicking their new soccer balls, joy splashed across their faces as they occasionally stopped to take selfies on their phones to celebrate their participation. 

“The parents were just super thankful their kids could get out and do anything,” said South Salt Lake recreation coordinator Dustin Permann, who organized the soccer skills clinic with eight other staff members that ran from Sept. 28 to Oct. 21, 2020.  

Normally, a sentence about kids kicking a ball around with other kids wouldn’t hold any significance, but if you lived in the city and weren’t able to play outside or wear a team uniform for months due to an orange threat level that persisted well into the summer of 2020, you might be excited, too—especially if you had to adhere to such a rigid set of rules just to be able to play the game you loved. 

For starters, that ball the kids got for participating was thanks to a donation from Real Salt Lake and couldn’t be shared with anyone except for the two family members they brought with them on this special, season-ending night in the year there was no season. 

Due to strict health and safety restrictions, there also wasn’t a professional photographer on-site. Instead, city staff did everything they could to make the kids experience as normal as possible, even setting up two photo booths at which staff took fun photos of the children and their families —using the families’ own phones—starting with the youngest players first. 

“We set up a backdrop that was pretty professional looking,” said Permann, and added the parents really appreciated having this to cap this historic event. 

Soccer skills and drills with sanitizer

Every Monday and Wednesday night without fail, those 40 kids and their families came, like soldiers in a war they already knew too much about. Hailing from places like Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and from El Salvador and Syria—from every battle-scarred corner of the globe, they all lined up in their masks at the entrance to Central Park, where a city official administered temperature checks to each child and family member at a check-in table.  

The kids’ parents were emailed links in advance to the drills their children would perform at the clinic to make sure nobody felt uncomfortable, said Permann. The parents stayed on designated sidelines while their kids were separated into small groups that rotated between skill stations set up across six fields. The first two weeks were dedicated to learning basic soccer skills through fun learning games and drills, while the last two weeks consisted of more intensive practices and drills. 

Each session was led by members of the city’s recreation staff, who used a special spray wand to sanitize each piece of equipment after every skill station. Handshakes and high fives were not allowed due to health and safety guidelines, but from a safe 6-foot physical distance from one another, kids “let out a loud cheer at the end of every drill which they really enjoyed,” added Permann. 

Masks were encouraged for spectators and for players when they were not engaging in soccer activities. Spectators were limited to two per child and asked to keep a 6-foot physical distance from those outside their household. In addition to the guidelines set in place by city officials, two hand washing stations with running warm water and soap were available on-site along with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. 

“Everybody was really respectful of all the rules we had in place,” said Permann, who added that the department had to have all hands on deck—including top department administrators—just to be able to make sure the four-week event went off without a hitch. 

“I think when people saw how careful we were and how much fun the kids had, they were surprised,” he said. “Most of the kids stayed in their lines and all of the parents were good about everything—just grateful their kids could participate.”         

Most recreational programs postponed

The soccer clinic was a long culmination of efforts by SSL recreation coordinator Aaron Wiet to provide recreational outlets for area kids in what has been a trying year for him and other city officials. He first sat in on spring meetings with the Utah Parks Recreation Association trying to make sense of this new normal, and apprised officials of his situation—the city was at an “orange level” then, making it impossible for his department to safely hold any in-person events even while other cities were planning to relaunch their recreation programs. In June, after Wiet received the go-ahead for his department to safely hold an adult softball league, it too had to be canceled just as soon as it started due to a positive COVID-19 case that was unrelated to any league participant but was discovered within the city limits. 

Wiet then made the decision that his department would be “postponing all recreational sports and activities until we feel it is safe to congregate.” In early fall, the department was again given the green light after the city’s threat level dropped from orange to yellow to hold the soccer clinic. The department followed guidance from the COVID-19 Task Force, of which Wiet was a member, using the COVID-19 Event Planning Template provided by the state of Utah, as well as advisements from Salt Lake County Health Department officials. 

The clinic’s turnout of 40 kids was down significantly from the 200 or so who usually participate in the fall soccer season, but this massive drop in turnout isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the significant drop is in line with the current national average in cities like South Salt Lake, added LA84 Foundation President and CEO Renata Simril earlier this year in a statement. “COVID-19 is putting poor, minority communities on the margins,” she said. 

For the department, this free soccer skills clinic in fall 2020 would be the only in-person event for kids it’s been able to hold after March 2020. On Jan. 12, 2021, the department announced that it would be unable to offer a Jr. Jazz basketball league at press time. 

“I wish I had some better news, but unfortunately it is not looking good for in-person basketball this winter season,’ said Permann in an email to city officials. “We are restricted on access to gym space in city and district buildings, and will most likely wait to hold in person Jr. Jazz until November [2021].” 

For the 25 kids who pre-registered before the announcement, Permann added they will all be able to call ahead and make appointments to pick up their items—Jazz basketball, Jazz mask and other items—from the Columbus Center in person because it’s currently closed to the public. “In the meantime, the kids are more than welcome to use the outdoor courts at Central Park if they’d like,” Permann said. 

Permann admitted he is frustrated not being able to hold any further in-person events until at least mid-March—when T-ball and baseball are set to begin, weather permitting—but added he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the kids again, especially during such unique circumstances, and was happy with department efforts to provide these kids with a safe and fun experience. 

“The little things we’ve done have gone a long way to help these kids,” he said. “We still get a few calls from parents every day, looking for information; they’re bummed because their kids are bored and frustrated being stuck inside their homes playing video games, but I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As soon as we get back outside, it’s game on.”