Arizona has become the place to be for local youth club sports teams that want to do more than just hold practices. Cities like Yuma, Phoenix and Tucson – where competitions are allowed –are bustling on the weekends with youth sports teams from all over California.
For now, the hassle and expense of getting to Arizona – shelling out hundreds of dollars per trip – offers the chance to compete again, something California has yet to allow for youth sports clubs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Parents and coaches worry that the longer teams continue the treks, the wider the gulf will become between those who can afford to take part and those who can’t – creating yet another inequity among children as the pandemic drags on.
Under California’s guidelines for youth sports , youth athletes can only take part in no-contact, distanced drills and conditioning exercises for practice. Local protests  in recent weeks  sought more freedom, and have harped on mental health concerns for young athletes during the prolonged lockdowns.
California released new guidelines for professional sports in outdoor stadiums Tuesday, but youth sports rules remain unchanged for now.
With no sign California will open local fields to competitions anytime soon, some clubs began sending hundreds of players to Arizona this fall, and plan to send hundreds more in the coming months.
The San Diego Surf Soccer Club in Del Mar is one of them now making the trek regularly —traveling hundreds of miles to play mostly neighboring Southern California teams.
“For the most part, families are willing to do whatever it takes,” said Brian Enge, CEO of Surf Cup Sports, the for-profit arm supporting the 850-youth nonprofit San Diego Surf Soccer Club. “But we already see after six to eight weeks, it’s beginning to wear thin on families. The whole issue is going to hit the lower-income kids the most. Our scholarship kids are having the hardest time getting over there to play.”
Kids can no longer carpool or share rooms to split the cost, adding financial burdens for families. And located just over the border, Yuma’s relative proximity makes it a plum spot, but the crowds have made hotels scarce and “Motel 6 is charging $250 bucks a night and getting it,” Enge said.
The San Diego Surf Soccer Club sent roughly 600 players and 35 coaches to Arizona for competitions in the last six weeks, Enge estimated. Some club travel was normal for older youth in years past, but the trips are more prevalent and younger teams are also going now.
“We will continue to have people there (in Arizona), at least a few teams from San Diego Surf every weekend until Thanksgiving,” Enge said.
San Diego Surf Soccer Club leaders even decided to relocate their marquee annual event – the San Diego Surf Cup  – to Phoenix at the end of the year. The event is expected to attract 400 teams across two weeks, totaling 15,000 people, half of them players.
A record number of applications are rolling in and “almost all of them from teams in California,” Enge said. In the end, “We will probably have 1,000 teams apply for 400 positions.”
Enge would love to see California permit competitive youth sports games with precautions, like those they are taking in Arizona, such as temperature checks, health screening questionnaires and mask mandates when not on the field.
“We are all being very cautious,” Enge said. “It just seems somewhat illogical and unfair for kids that families can be at beaches with no protocols, with packed parking lots. Parents can be out drinking in bars that are crowded, even outside … but kids can’t play outdoors where there have been almost zero cases of transmission.”
Enge said he is aware of six to eight cases of COVID-19 among Surf players following the trips, but none spread to teammates. Once someone tests positive, even if it is a sibling of a player, that entire team is shut down for 10 to 14 days, he said.
The decision to take youth sports teams on the road allows teams to skirt state rules with relative impunity — as long as no one gets sick. Only Arizona’s COVID-19 rules apply in Arizona, but if players, their families or coaches test positive upon their return here, the case counts as a local infection.
County health officials are aware of about a dozen cases of young athletes contracting COVID-19 after playing a game across state lines, but none have been tied to an outbreak here, county spokesman Michael Workman said. He said the trips are not a concern with precautions in place, even as more and more families are willing to go the distance for their kids to compete.
“We wish there weren’t more cases,” Workman said. “There’s a lot more kids back to school than this… It’s not like they are going to a frat party in Arizona where nobody is minding any protocols at all.”
Team California Baseball out of Carlsbad has also traveled to Arizona tournaments in recent weeks, and the Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks Youth Soccer Club recently invited players to Arizona, but officials at both clubs did not respond to Voice of San Diego’s inquiries about their travels.
“We are talking about hundreds of teams going to Arizona and we are not seeing (coronavirus) hotspots within youth sports teams. If we saw any escalation of cases or any outbreak, we would stop that activity,” Enge said.
Furthering inequities is also a concern for parents Matt Dickson and Kimberly Dickson, both urgent care doctors in Imperial Beach. The Dicksons’ two children attend Mar Vista High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District and both are swimmers and water polo players.
Sport facility closures in the area have limited opportunities for even California-compliant practices and “created this inequality for the South Bay kids,” Matt Dickson said.
School sports remain closed and their kids’ club team relocated practices to East County in the Grossmont Union High School District, where there is access to a pool. They said other South County families are traveling to Coronado for pool access.
The Dicksons and others have petitioned the Sweetwater district to reopen the pools for club practices at least but have had no luck.
“Some kids don’t have access to transportation and can’t do it. Kids who can’t walk to local facilities can’t do it, and now they’re locked out of that opportunity,” Matt Dickson said.
The Dicksons’ kids are itching to play in a real game but haven’t been offered the opportunity to play in Arizona. They support families who are able to go, but also worry that too will make disparities worse.
“It would be great to get our kids in competition and they really, really want to. Our only concern is it creates a disadvantage. If a single parent with limited income is not able to do that, it’s again creating this unequal divide between the haves and have-nots and it’s just not right.”
As physicians, the Dicksons said they are taking the coronavirus seriously, but have been encouraged by the precautions their children’s clubs have taken, like requiring masks outside of the pool, requiring temperature checks and distance between players.
More concerning than the coronavirus are other problems afflicting youth during the pandemic, which have left them seeing more drug overdose cases, attempted suicides, teen pregnancies and depression and anxiety, they said. They also fear for more sports injuries if young athletes do not get enough time to condition before their school sports season starts in December.
“From a medical point of view, there are coaches and teachers and parents who should not be at games who are at higher risk. We are asking for options. We absolutely respect the fear of contracting COVID,” said Matt Dickson.
Kimberly Dickson said she fears the school district’s financial problems  are motivating them to keep the doors closed for school and sports.
“They are saving lots of money by keeping campuses closed. So, we are wondering what is their motivation and are they hiding under the veil of COVID?” she said.
Though the South Bay was battered by the virus more than some other parts of the county , Kimberly Dickson said the numbers there overall are “mostly improving,” especially when looking at new coronavirus cases in the Sweetwater district’s ZIP codes. She also said looking at case numbers in comparison to local population totals is important and shows some East County cities have higher infection rates.
The exodus from California for weekend competitions is not ideal and comes with increased costs and risks of coronavirus exposure from hotels and restaurants.
Still, with no alternative locally in sight, it is an attractive option to San Diego parent Brian Victor, who said he fears his 7-year-old will miss the chance to play this year if they wait any longer. He planned a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, for his son to play in a soccer tournament with his local club team, which he did not want to name publicly. Only one player out of 11 on the team declined to go, more than the seven kids needed to play.
Victor said he does not believe the virus is a hoax and has seen projections that coronavirus cases will rise this winter, so now might be the only chance his son has to play for a while.
“I’m comfortable with them doing outdoor activities like playing soccer. There is a lot of evidence the transmission of the virus is lower outdoors,” Victor said. “I’m a little nervous about going to Arizona because once you travel to somewhere, you put yourself in new situations like the hotel, restaurants, indoor situations where the transmission of the virus is greater.”
But without the ability to compete locally, “this is the only option available,” he said.
Even with practices only, Victor said the sport has been essential during this difficult time.
“In general, I’ve kind of felt soccer has been maybe the most normal aspect of our life… You have to find a way to live your life in the safest way possible and still find ways to enjoy your life in the safest way possible.”
For some players in their junior and senior years of high school, it also might feel like time is running out.
The NCAA has barred in-person college recruiting until next year, but videos can be sent to scouts and getting game time is essential, Enge with the soccer club said.
If local clubs attempted to host tournaments and competitions here, it could attract fines up to $1,000. So could violating public health orders around youth sports.
But no such fines have been levied in San Diego County to date. Nor have any citations been issued, Workman with the county said. Just five complaints about youth sports COVID-19 violations have been investigated by county officials to date, and Workman said they prefer to re-educate, rather than fine or cite.
“We are not going to go out to a reported scrimmage and count masks and measure distance. We will make contact and educate the adults as to how they can carry on practice within the state guidelines. Repeat offenders are a different story,” Workman wrote in an email.
Enge said San Diego Surf Soccer Club has had a couple visits from county officials.
“We met with them. We walked through everything we were doing, showing them live training sessions. They corrected certain things. ‘You need more signage and do this differently,’” Enge recalls them saying. “My takeaway is they are out there with the community, not to try to be throwing out fines and deter kids from paying.”
There was no talk of a fine, he said.
Enge hopes to get a local pilot program going in a month or so with help from Rady Children’s Hospital to monitor COVID-19 transmission among kids who play at their local facility for four weeks, testing them for COVID-19 every week. The hope is the results will show low risk and motivate state and local leaders to reopen competitions here.
Brittany Cruz-Fejeran contributed to this report.