Junior Olympics are coming to Florida after Virginia backed out over COVID fears

Wrestling was among the competitions during the 2018 Junior Olympics. Credit: AAU

The Junior Olympics will move to Brevard County in about three weeks, bringing thousands of young athletes to Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic, because disease restrictions meant the original venues in Virginia would not be available.

The announcement came Thursday during a news conference in Melbourne featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in promoting the reopening of Florida’s economy has been encouraging professional and other sports organizations to move events to the state.

The news came as the Florida Department of Health announced that 1,698 new COVID-positive test results had come in overnight, plus 47 deaths, bringing the statewide total to 69,069 cases and 2,848 deaths. The 1,698 spike from one day to the next is the highest increase since June 1, state data show.

DeSantis, who’s also OK’d reopening summer camps and fitness clubs and has been promoting exercise in the interest of people’s general and mental health, told reporters he saw no cause for concern over the games or his administration’s plans to reopen the public schools in the fall.

“I think the data is in on this in terms of the risk of kids of this. We haven’t had a single [age] 0-to-18 fatality COVID-related. There have been a handful throughout the country, but that’s usually related to an underlying condition,” he said.

“So, the risk to kids is significantly lower than it is for influenza, both in terms of hospitalization and in terms of fatalities. You have to look at the data, look at the science, and do.”

As many as 3,000 athletes aged 8 through 18 will participate, Florida Today reported.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidelines for youth sports that reflect the standard social distancing measures plus consideration about the degree of physical closeness athletes will experience, and for how long; the amount of touching of shared equipment; ability to social distance while not in play; and the age of the athletes.

“Older youth might be better able to follow directions for social distancing and take other protective actions like not sharing water bottles,” the guidelines say.

They also warn against unwarranted travel.

“Traveling outside of the local community may increase the chances of exposing players, coaches, and fans to COVID-19, or unknowingly spreading it to others,” they say.

“This is the case particularly if a team from an area with high levels of COVID-19 competes with a team from an area with low levels of the virus. Youth sports teams should consider competing only against teams in their local area (e.g., neighborhood, town, or community).”

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and Hampton Roads Sports Commission issued a joint statement on May 15 saying that, despite “careful consideration and countless hours planning possible scenarios to move forward with the event,” they decided not to hold the event.

The statement specifically said that COVID “has irrevocably altered the world as we know it. All of us are navigating uncharted waters as we adapt to a new normal and a new reality.”

Roger Goudy, president of the AAU, said organizers turned to Brevard, which hosted the games in 1996, because of the organization’s connections there, he said. AAU First Vice President Rusty Buchanan lives in the area.

“It’s hard to hard to run sports without facilities — tracks, gyms, and so forth,” Goudy said.

The event will combine the Junior Olympics with the Sunshine State Games, another Olympics-style competition for athletes of all ages, Goudy said.

The games will commence “at the end of July” at public school sports venues, county school Superintendent Mark Mullins said. The Virginia games would have run through July 29 through Aug. 8 and included basketball, wrestling, tumbling, gymnatics, swimming, beach volleyball, and additional sports.

“Certainly, the opportunity to host the largest national multisport event for our nation’s youth is one we could not overlook — not only for the potential economic benefits it presents to our county at this critical time, but because of the uplifting message it brings to our community and our kids,” Mullins said.

Asked about the COVID numbers, DeSantis repeated what he has said before: As the state ramps up testing, he expects to uncover more infections. He also noted outbreaks occurring among agricultural workers who tend to be younger and less likely to suffer serious consequences and a continuing problem at nursing homes.

He dismissed concerns that infections are spiking since he began reopening the economy.

“So, here’s the thing about a spike,” he said.

“We have had like 2,000 to 2,200, 2,300, COCID hospitalizations pretty consistently. Go look at New York, at what New York had. That’s a spike. So, to say that there’s a spike — there’s just never been a spike in Florida. It’s been relatively modest,” DeSantis said.

“Just understand: This is an illness that is subclinical for the vast, vast majority of people who acquire it,” he said.

In another development, DeSantis said he was still waiting to find out whether Jacksonville will host at least some proceedings of the Republican National Convention in August, amid disagreement with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over COVID restrictions at the original Charlotte venue.

“I think there’s a good chance that it ends up in the state of Florida but I know they’ve looked at other areas. I think they’ve looked at Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, maybe even Las Vegas,” DeSantis said.

“But I think Florida — you know, Jacksonville — would obviously be a good spot for it. So, we’ll just have to wait and see,” he added.

“I mean, it’s still 2 1/2 months away, so it’s a long time. But I think it would be good for the state of Florida to be able, you know, to have something on that scale. So we’ll see what happens.”