Is Playing Pickleball Safe Now?

Is playing Pickleball less safe now than it was in the summer? Given the change in weather and new wave of Covid 19 infections, what should we be doing to ensure safe and healthy play?

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, epidemiologist, scientist, government official, CDC employee or pandemic expert. The conclusions and opinions are mine based on limited information, data and just a few hours of thought and analysis. Like many other topics today, there is a lot of misinformation and this post is my personal effort to sort out my alternatives and plan of action.

Overview: There are approximately 2,300 members in the South Jersey Pickleball Group. Recently there were a few members that tested positive for coronavirus. These members had recently played at various pickleball venues and obviously this created some concerns within the pickleball community. While there have been reported incidents of coronavirus infections nationwide spreading at indoor pickleball facilities, there appears to be few, if any infection outbreaks of coronavirus from playing outdoors. 

The infection rates within the State of New Jersey and specifically Camden County have risen dramatically the past few weeks. In Camden County, more than 15,000 cases of infection have been reported since the start of the pandemic. This represents about 3% of the Camden County population. Gloucester County has approximately 7,200 cases, representing about 2.5% of their population.

If we use 3% as the mean, as many as 70 South Jersey Pickleball members could be projected to have already caught the coronavirus. So no one should be surprised in a group as large as ours, there may be some reported cases. (As an offset, most members of the South Jersey Pickleball group are obviously very health conscious and many are retired so they are not exposed to potential workplace initiated infections.)

Risk Management Considerations:

Many in our pickleball community are in a high risk age group (65+) related to complications from Coronavirus. Younger players generally have less to fear if infected but they still need to exert vigilance and prevention for themselves and when playing with or around older players. Older players too must be diligent when playing with or around younger players.

Exposure to many players. If you play golf or tennis, generally you play with three other people for the morning or session. Some Pickleball Meetups had 50 or more people signed up so this meant in a two or three hour period, you could be partnered or playing with 12-20 different people depending on the available players at your skill level. (See chart). If you play 3 or more times a week, you can be playing with 40 or more different people creating added potential exposure or risk.

Exposure to players who are visiting or returning from vacations from “hot infection” states. Pickleball players (usually) are a very friendly group. We don’t check IDs on the court. Hence we don’t quarantine players from Florida, South Carolina etc playing on South Jersey or local courts. Regrettably as I write, just about every state is a “hot infection” state.

Exposure to different pickleballs. There are those balls you play with each game and those balls you toss back to another court when their ball rolls on your court.

Recommendations:

These measures appear to be prudent given the colder weather and the rising rates of Coronavirus infections nationwide and within the South Jersey/Philadelphia area. Hopefully by Spring 2021, vaccines will have begun to be distributed and pickleballers can return to an almost normalized routine.

Play within small groups of players (4-8) to minimize exposure. Various groups are organizing and using the TeamReach app to schedule events. If, by chance, a player displays symptoms or tests positive, TeamReach can serve as a communication and tracking tool.

Ideally one should play with those who are responsible and considerate of the health and safety of other players. These also should be people who you can have fun and be social with.

Players who play exclusively outside may be safer to play with than players who have recently or are playing indoors.

If you are an older player, it may be safer to play with people within your own age group. Most younger players have families and children and are much less likely to be able to isolate due to career and family responsibilities.

Playing outdoors appears to be more safer (not foolproof) than playing indoors. If you are deciding to play indoors, make sure that the facility and employees are practicing the same due diligence and health risk mitigating efforts as you are.

Maintain social distancing and wear a mask while resting or waiting to play again. (I don’t think I have seen those precautions taken at all at any of the venues I have played. I think all of us were lulled by the great weather.)

Don’t handle someone else’s paddles. (This generally happens when moving paddles along a fence or queue to create space.)

If you are feeling sick or have a fever, don’t play!! (whether it’s outdoors or indoors). This is not the best time to try to play through an illness.

From Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Hill Street Blues), one last piece of advice “Let’s be careful out there!”

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