NJ Youth Football teams went to Florida despite COVID warnings
Despite strong urging by Gov. Phil Murphy to avoid out of state travel, seven New Jersey American Youth Football teams are en route to Florida for the national championships.
The groups headed to Florida, which has had more than 1 million positive cases since March, for the nationals in Kissimmee outside Orlando are a 9-year-old and 12-year-old team from Asbury Park, 10-year-old teams from Toms River and Linden, an 11-year-old team from Roselle, and a 14-year-old team from Southern in Stafford Township, Alliance president Mike Liloia told New Jersey 101.5.
More than 200 teams from around the country will participate in the championships, according to the AYF Facebook page.
"I am certain it will be a lot like what our season was like with social distancing, masks and/or gators mandated, a whole heck of a lot of hand sanitizer and a lot of trying to keep people safe," Liloia said.
Oceola County, where the games are being played has an emergency ordinance in effect requiring "all people working, living, visiting or doing business in Osceola County to wear face coverings while in public places until further notice, with defined exceptions."
The state of Florida's COVID-19 response website said a public heath advisory is in effect, requiring people to wear face coverings if social distancing is not possible indoors and outdoors, to refrain from gatherings of more than 10 people and to avoid spaces, crowded places and closed contact settings.
The teams going to Florida are members of the NJ AYF Jersey Shore Football & Cheer Alliance, which was formed when the New Jersey AYF cancelled its season in July. Liloia said he and several parents from 16 teams felt the decision was premature and decided they could conduct a "safe and healthy season" for the children age 5 through 14 who participate in the AYF.
"The decision that NJ AYF had reached was respected by everybody. Obviously when you're referring to COVID everybody has a different opinion. Polar opposites. Some people believe it's non-existent and fake, some people believe its going to kill you when you walk out the door, God forbid, and there's people in the middle somewhere," Liloia said.
The Alliance teams played for 10 successful weeks, according to Liloia, but as the season progressed and coronavirus cases began to spike some teams opted out of playing for a national title.
"The conversation shifted to 'well what if we win? Are we really going to go to Florida? Do we really make the trip?' There were people who were nervous about the decision to do so," Liloia said, adding that some teams that committed to potentially traveling to Florida changed their mind as the cases increased.
Liloia said all games are being played at an outdoor facility called Austin Tindall Sports Complex, a 115-acre facility with nine fields plus a stadium with a seating capacity of 4,000. It is operated by Osceola County.
Liloia said the kids participating in both football and cheer were grateful for the opportunity to do a "normal" activity. Many of them have said they felt "punished" by having to stay home from school and not being able to see friends, Liloia saID.
"The amount of 'thank-yous,' the amount of letters, the amount of thank-you cards that I got from children handwritten and handed to me at the field —we were calling them air high fives. The parents thanking all of the league leaders for making the season happen. One of teams gave me a trophy calling me their MVP, their most valuable player, for giving the kids a sense of normalcy," Liloia said.
A spokesman from the AYF's national headquarters did not yet return a message from New Jersey 101.5.
The parents and kids will have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return from Florida to comply with New Jersey's mandate about out of state travel. Florida has no mandates about quarantining for out-of-state travelers.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ