Ballparks can open, with limits

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

McCOOK, Neb. — The fate of the boys and girls of summer was somewhat decided Monday night at the McCook City Council meeting, during discussion of when and if to open up the city practice ball fields.

City facilities, such as the ball parks, have been closed due to directed health measures issued by Gov. Ricketts for the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 11, Gov. Ricketts allowed youth team sports, such as softball/baseball, to resume practice June 1 and games on June 18, but with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines still in place. Additional guidelines were also issued by the governor for team sports, such as fan attendance limited to immediate family members only, who must bring their own lawn chairs as the use of bleachers is not allowed, restrooms must be cleaned and sanitized regularly while players and fans are present and no congregating of players.

Although no official vote was taken by the council, members seemed to be in consensus with staff recommendation to open up the ball fields as long as team leaders/coaches sign a waiver releasing the city from any liability issues and a contract that states the coaches are responsible for enforcing the governor’s team sports social distancing guidelines.

It’s up to the city council to decide whether to open up the ball parks or not, said McCook City Manager Nate Schneider, and although the team guidelines are strict, “ultimately, they have to be enforced.”

The waiver and contract were recommended by the Nebraska League of Municipalities at a teleconference meeting attended by the city manager, Mayor Mike Gonzales and the city Public Works director, Kyle Potthoff. City staff will meet with youth baseball and softball coaches Thursday night to discuss practice and the waivers/contracts.

How well the social distancing guidelines for team sports are enforced on the ball fields will be the litmus test for high school fall sports, Schneider told the council, based on conversations with the governor and the Nebraska Education Commissioner.

Councilman Jared Muehlenkamp said he’s received numerous comments and emails about opening up the ball parks with people very passionate about the subject. It’s up to the coaches and parents to make good decisions, he said, and “I don’t feel it’s up to the council to say you can do that.”

Council member Janet Hepp said the social distancing guidelines are just that, guidelines and not mandates. “We have a choice to go or stay home…we need to turn it back to the people, let them decide.” You cannot make people do something, she said, adding, “They’re not going to purposely harm themselves or each other.”

Keeping the city safe from becoming another “hot spot” and making sure the city is not liable for related issues were concerns mentioned by Mayor Mike Gonzales. Gonzales wondered how it would work if McCook teams visited cities such as Lexington or Grand Island, or towns in Colorado, with a high number of positive cases of the COVUD-19 virus, or if those teams visited McCook. Although he’s in favor of opening up the city ball parks, “let’s not become a hot spot,” Gonzales said.

City attorney Nathanial Mustion corrected Hepp’s assessment of the guidelines as suggestions. The social distancing guidelines are Directed Health Measures issued by the governor, he said, and as such, they are mandated laws and not just suggestions.

Councilman Gene Weedin said he’s comfortable with the city re-opening the ballparks, as long as the waiver and contract are signed by coaches.

Schneider spoke on other city facilities that are closed and said he’s heard from numerous city residents asking why they are still being charged for recycling on the city’s water/trash/sewer bill yet the recycling center is currently closed. Schneider said although the recycling center is not open, funds are still being used to operate the facility and “we still have to make sure we can have equipment and manpower. Whether it’s closed or open, we’re still paying the same cash.”

Other city facilities he mentioned included:

--The Elks tennis park will open for tennis and Russell Park for pickle bar on June 1. Signs will be posted at both locations to release the city from liability and that social distancing guidelines must be observed.

City equipment at parks, such as playground equipment, is still closed to the public but this will be revisited on June 1.

--Karrer Park is still closed.

--The city library and senior center are still closed. Schneider said library director, Jodi Crocker, has been talking with other area library directors about re-opening and is planning to open in stages, but has concerns about keeping the social distancing guidelines for children at the library and making sure surfaces and areas are kept sanitized. The senior center has had a high demand for Meals on Wheels, Schneider said.

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