Senate committee hearing on youth sports, COVID-19 turns contentious

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The management of youth sports through the COVID-19 pandemic was the focus of a Minnesota Senate committee hearing Monday morning. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) commissioner, youth sports leaders, parents and athletes testified about decisions made around COVID-19 policies.

That includes current masking policies as spring sports get underway and a recent decision to cancel a game in the Minnesota Boys State Hockey Tournament due to coronavirus concerns.

"A kid could hop on the ice for under 24 seconds and then knock out a whole team. And that’s to me … not following science," said Dawn Gillum, founder of Let Them Play.

Some Minnesota lawmakers are calling on the governor to provide transparency and clarity when it comes to youth sports and how the state’s decisions are being made.

"What we’re talking about is our best attempt to keep kids safe," MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm testified before the Senate Education Committee.

This, as state health and education officials say sports are a big contributor to the spread the state is currently seeing.

"We are at another critical point with this virus and we need to take action so that our students can continue with in-person learning and all those other activities that make the school experience a memorable experience," Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said prior to the hearing.

MDH officials said they’re seeing an increase in cases and hospitalizations in children—particularly adolescents—and they link that increase to youth sports.

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state’s investigations show outbreaks in the state have been connected to sports and have later impacted more vulnerable populations. But the group Let Them Play Minnesota argues the state has failed to show that direct connection.

"Did you do a study so we could see numbers like they did in Wisconsin, where they actually showed student-athletes contracted the virus and spread the virus even less than those that weren’t athletes?" asked Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point. "Do you have those numbers we could see?"

"I’m not aware we have any data that suggests that," Malcolm responded.

"Let Them Play" and other critics of MDH claim the department is manipulating data to make spread of the virus look worse than it actually is and they say internal e-mails they’ve obtained prove that.

Sam Diehl of "Let Them Play" says there was even "a political strategy by the governor to tie youth sports to long-term care deaths."

Diehl was interrupted by a Democratic senator refuting his assertion.

"Mr. Chair, this is ridiculous and outrageous that he’s litigating this in front of our committee," said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. "Making tons of claims that are unsubstantiated like they’re fact."

Lawmakers also heard from Mankato West High School swimmer Carson Deichman who was banned from swimming in the state meet because he was only 11 days into a 14-day quarantine. Deichman testified he tested negative twice for COVID-19 during that time and was treated differently than Gov. Tim Walz when they were quarantined around the same time.

"But the governor chose to only quarantine for 10 days," he testified. "If he applied the same rules to me he applied to himself, I could have swam in the state meet. This is not fair."

The hearing was only information and no action was taken, but lawmakers say they hope MDH will come up with more consistent guidelines based on science and not conjecture.

KSTP’s complete COVID-19 coverage