Coach Richard Reece, in a mask, directs Seattle United’s Elite Girls National League teams for practice at Magnuson Park on Sept. 4. Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times

Youth sports leagues across the state are gearing up for a traditional fall season — or at least something close to it — after new safety guidelines were approved by the governor's office and state health officials this week.

Since June, most youth sports leagues have been allowed only to practice in small-group sessions. The new COVID-19 restrictions — outlined in a five-page plan from Gov. Jay Inslee's office — give most sports in most counties the chance to resume relatively normal activities, including scrimmages and games.

Washington Youth Soccer (WYS), in partnership with the Seattle United soccer club and Dr. Jon Drezner, the director of the University of Washington's Center for Sports Cardiology, presented the governor's office with a return-to-play plan last month. Local soccer clubs celebrated the plan's approval this week.

"The most important part of the return-to-play plan is that kids are going to be able to go back to training and games in a safe manner," said Kyle Rodeheaver, a Seattle United coach and part of the WYS return-to-play committee. "There has been a lot of research done in Europe and studies done here in the U.S. that show youth soccer to be a relatively low-risk activity, and that I believe, has led the state government to allow sports like soccer to move into more contact activities."

Rodeheaver said the "unseen advantage" of reopening youth sports is the emotional and psychological health benefits it will give young athletes.

Drezner cited a study from the University of Wisconsin this summer that showed 68% of adolescent athletes experienced symptoms of depression after schools and sports were closed in the spring.

"This sense of 'normalcy' that youth sports will bring may be the most understated positive to come out of these new guidelines," Rodeheaver said.

In counties deemed "moderate" level risk — this includes King County — no competitions of any kind are allowed against other teams in "high" risk sports such as tackle football, basketball and wrestling.

For low- and moderate-risk sports — tennis, swimming, golf, soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, flag football, among others — each league or club is required to publish or distribute a return to play safety plan.

The state's new guidelines emphasize the need for continued social distancing among athletes, coaches and spectators; for good hygiene; and for diligent attendance logs and contract tracing.

The new plan also requires athletes to wear masks directly before and after activities and "strongly" encourages them to wear masks during less-strenuous activities. Coaches, referees/umpires and spectators are required to wear masks.

In most counties, only one parent will be allowed to attend games of a minor.

And, of course, athletes and parents who are not feeling well, or have been exposed to COVID-19, are asked to stay home.

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