“Let us play ball.”

That was the request posed by Murphey Candler Baseball to the Brookhaven City Council during its virtual May 26 virtual meeting, sparking a two-hour discussion about how to safely allow organized sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council decided to allow the popular youth sports league to return to city parks for a June 1-July 2 season that comes with many precautions, including limiting play to older children and requiring spectators to wear masks and stay off the bleachers. Other leagues can return as well on the same schedule and must present a plan for safety guidelines, with Murphey Candler Baseball’s considered a model.

But the vote was not unanimous and councilmembers warned the city will pull the plug if safety guidelines are violated.

“As soon as we get the indication that the guidelines for social distancing and masks are not followed, I will be the first to make the motion to suspend all play and shut it down,” said District 2 Councilmember John Park, which the other councilmembers echoed.

Dr. Sandra Ford, the DeKalb County health director, spoke in the meeting, where she applauded the careful reopening plan, though she warned the safety measures will only work if parents actually follow them.

“Social distancing is going to be a real challenge at a sporting event where you’re excited and watching your child play and everyone is glad to be there,” Ford said.

The conversation echoed those around the nation about how to restart sports leagues as states gradually reopen businesses and facilities. The council had safety questions about every aspect of the Murphey Candler season, from the amount of spectators to concern for players sliding into base.

Murphey Candler Baseball President Jim Montembeau supplied answers to many of those concerns with a detailed safety plan for participants. They included mask requirements for spectators, mandatory social distancing and constant monitoring to make sure the rules are followed.

The discussion tied into the city’s larger plan to open parks and recreation areas, as well as other outdoor sports leagues, by the beginning of June.

Members of the council eventually approved outdoor, organized sports leagues to start practicing on June 1 and competing in games on June 15. Mayor John Ernst emphasized the decision did not green-light indoor sports.

District 1 Councilmember Linley Jones was the only vote against starting summer sports seasons, citing too many safety concerns for players on the field.

“This has been one of the most incredibly difficult issues and decisions that we have faced in the reopening process,” Jones said.

The council unanimously approved the other aspects of the staff recommended plan to reopen parks and recreation areas.

Athletic fields, dog parks and tennis and pickleball courts are set to reopen June 1. Picnic pavilions, restrooms, basketball courts and playgrounds are tentatively set to open July 1.

Brookhaven pools can reopen after a county inspection, which is currently delayed because of the health department’s work on the pandemic. Trails and greenways are already open.

Rules of the pandemic game

Though the councilmembers approved the baseball season, much to the delight of the Facebook live commenters, they were adamant about strict adherence to the safety rules.

Ernst said Murphey Candler Baseball came to city officials weeks ago with its plan to reopen after its spring season was cut short in March. He said he hopes other leagues display the same type of careful planning.

Montembeau said Murphey Candler Baseball is drawing on the Little League International and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in its reopening plan.

Only older children, 9-12 years old, will be allowed to play. The season will end on July 2. Montembeau said the June 1 start date is based on coach and volunteer availability, and coaches said they wouldn’t compete in travel tournaments if they had a local season.

Murphey Candler Park will have designated entry and exits to help with social distancing, and will not allow spectators to use the bleachers, instead requesting them to bring folding chairs to set up around the field. Post-game meetings will have a time limit, and the organization will ask all participants to leave the park as soon as possible after the game.

The park will have hand sanitizer and disinfectants available. Teams also have separated and assigned batting cages. The restroom will have a one-in-one-out policy and have volunteers sanitizing it often.

Jones worried about players sliding into bases without masks and being in close contact with each other.

Ford said in the brevity of that sort of contact makes the risk for spreading the virus fairly low.

District 4 Councilmember Joe Gebbia called the league’s reopening a “test” for similar activities.

District 3 Councilmember Madeleine Simmons worried about participants ignoring social distance guidelines after the games when they are not at the park. She suggested asking the parents “in good faith” to say whether they’ve been practicing social distancing and wearing masks when they sign a waiver for the season and asking those who have not been to not participate.

–Erin Schilling