The New York Bluebirds Chart a Safe Return to Play
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“It can be done.”
Mike Handell, President of the New York Bluebirds youth baseball and softball organization, continued to make this statement as he discussed his organization’s return to play.
Mike and his co-founder, Juan Hernandez, established the Bluebirds in 2014 after Mike had spent 15 years running a summer day camp with his brother Brian, Kids of Summer Sports. Mike had noticed that players wanted more competitive play and there was a large need for competitive training in New York City, so the timing was great.
What started as just two teams has now grown to 15 teams, about 200 players, and a year-round training facility and program.
Spring season came to a halt
The spring season, which starts in April, is traditionally the biggest season for the NY Bluebirds and the organization and its members had been preparing and training for it since January. Mike first started really hearing about COVID-19 in early February, and as time went on, it started becoming the top news item. Unfortunately for the Bluebirds, New York became the epicenter in the United States.
“We were about two weeks away from opening day and missed the whole spring season. We got shut down by the state, which we knew was coming.” – Mike Handell
Mike and his team started moving all of their practices from indoor batting cages to outdoor facilities, but things continued to get crazy in New York. They ended up hitting pause in mid-March and officially canceled their spring season in early April. “We were holding off hope, but in early April we officially canceled the season and didn’t know what our future held at that point,” says Mike.
The impact of COVID
Canceling the season had a huge impact on both their organization and its members.
“The whole season was taken away from the kids and they had worked hard to get ready for it. They devote a lot of their time to practicing with us and it’s a significant part of their life. It was devastating,” says Mike.
The cancellation also had a business and financial impact on the organization.
The Bluebirds ended up having to issue refunds and credits for the spring season and had no revenue streams coming in for the foreseeable future. They were forced to lay off their full-time staff, which consisted of seven individuals. “April was pretty tough. We were kind of depressed and didn’t know what to do,” says Mike.
Luckily, they were finally able to receive some PPP funding and the organization’s families put together a GoFundMe for the coaching staff to help bridge the financial gap. With this support, Mike was able to start making a plan for the summer season in case the situation changed. They were ready to go.
Returning to play
Fast forward and the Bluebirds kicked off their summer season on June 20th.
But before they got to that point, there was a lot of planning that had to happen. “We needed to come up with a plan ahead of time, and not on the fly, that was detail-oriented, and we needed to build the parents’ trust,” says Mike. He continued by saying, “Our main concern was how can we do this the right way. And what happens if we get a positive test. What happens with the program? We needed some advice. We are not doctors. And so we needed some help with it.”
Mike and the NY Bluebirds leaned on Better Health Advisors (BHA), a team of experienced health advisors who had been helping the organization with health insurance for their staff. Together they built out a thorough plan.
The first part of the newly created protocol was establishing health screening and assessment processes, utilizing TeamSnap’s Health Check, for parents and players to follow. These were just basic CDC questions but they wanted to put the responsibility on the parents to think about health and safety before sending their kids to practices or games.
Working with BHA, the Bluebirds outlined sanitation guidelines for coaches and members, rules for wearing masks in the dugouts and updated practice plans for smaller group sizes. They created parent guides and held Zoom discussions to go over protocols and answer parent questions. They also made the decision to hire a COVID-19 point person, who is in charge of monitoring all of the new protocols, which includes attending practices to enforce the new rules, answering questions that come up regarding COVID, sending out reminders to complete health screenings, and managing next steps in case of a positive case.
“Parents and players have been thrilled because they know that we have a plan in place.” – Mike Handell
Advice for other organizers
Due to the lack of spring sports, NY Bluebirds’ summer season has actually doubled in size. “A lot of kids wanted to play and that was great to have all these families come back, support us and get their kids involved in the program,” says Mike.
And more importantly, they have returned to play safely and successfully and their players are getting back to the game they love.
Mike’s advice for other organizations is to come up with a detailed plan, allocate budget for a point person, communicate the rules clearly with families, and consult with professionals or even parents in the medical profession.
More importantly, Mike says, “You have to really be steadfast in your rules and not make exceptions. Have a detailed plan and then really enforce it.” And he continued to say, “It can be done.”
Anand Patel is a Sr. Product Marketing Manager at TeamSnap. He gets to soak up the beautiful Southern California sun every day and make his coworkers very, very jealous.