With states across the country beginning to slowly reopen their economies, outdoor tennis returned to New York this past weekend. But it remains to be seen when indoor tennis and other activities will be permitted. Because of that, tennis industry leaders on Long Island and in New York City have begun laying out the reasons why tennis can be played and taught smartly and safely, and therefore tennis facilities should be allowed to re-open.
New York Tennis Magazine sat down with SPORTIME Clubs CEO Claude Okin to discuss some of those reasons:
As New York begins to slowly reopen, why should indoor and outdoor tennis be included in Phase I of that reopening?
I think Governor Cuomo has done a great job dealing with a very difficult and fast moving situation. I try to watch his briefing every day and I am proud of the job that New York and New Yorkers have done in response to this horrendous crisis. But I was very disappointed when the Governor moved recreation from Phase I of New York’s reopening plan, where it had been in the federal guidelines, to Phase IV. With tennis and golf now both open outdoors, that does not make sense to me. Tennis is a far safer recreational activity than most, by the nature of the game and how it is played, and due to the size of a tennis court. It is a non-contact sport, and physical/social distancing is built into the game and is easy to mandate and enforce. Tennis is a healthy activity in which people of all ages and abilities can participate safely in the age of COVID-19, with readily achievable safeguards and protocols that would allow for participation by a broad range of New Yorkers. Delaying access to safe and healthy forms of exercise and recreation for months longer than necessary, by placing them in Phase IV, whether tennis or any other safe activity, will cause unnecessary physical and emotional harm to New Yorkers. We believe that a more nuanced approach would allow tennis play and instruction to resume now, or very soon, both indoors and outdoors, with strict safety protocols in place. We hope this approach will be considered by those in power.
What are the benefits of allowing tennis back into people’s lives?
At this time, when New York State residents are without access to so many health and fitness options that require participants to be in close proximity, and thus violate social distancing protocols and orders, New Yorkers are more sedentary than ever. As they shelter at home and, in some cases, work from home, safe exercise options are critical to the physical and mental health of New Yorkers. Health risks related to lack of physical activity include weight gain, loss of cardiovascular health, a weakened immune system, increased stress, depression and mental illness, and more. These risks are all well documented and not in dispute. So anything leaders can do to provide safe opportunities to exercise, in the context of the crisis, they should do, I think.
How is tennis one of the easier and more accessible sports to play while maintaining social distancing?
The simple protocols necessary to move tennis from safe to virtually risk free include on-court access to hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes, simple ball handling guidelines, and requiring the use of masks when players are entering and leaving courts. The physical characteristics of tennis courts make social/physical distancing achievable with no structural adjustments. Standard recreational tennis courts are generally 6,000 to 7,000 square feet in floor area, massive spaces, both in area and in volume, and there are as few as two, and no more than 5 individuals (4 players and a coach in the context of a supervised group program) on a court at any time, with no more than two players sharing each side of the court. Each side of each court is 3,000 square feet in floor area, and at least 120,000 feet in cubic area when enclosed. And tennis is readily available. Players do not have to join a club or affiliate with any organization. There are many public courts available throughout the State, so access, especially to outdoor play, is easy and affordable.
Do you think that most players are ready to come back to the sport and believe it is a safe activity at this time?
Based on the large volume of phone calls and email messages that we have received at Sportime, especially recently with the reopening of outdoor play, and with the larger reopening of the regions where we operate on the horizon, and based on conversations I have had with other operators of tennis facilities, players are desperate to return to the courts. They know that tennis is one of the few sports in which social distancing can be easily and consistently maintained; they know that playing and practicing tennis is safer than most of the other activities they do daily, whether grocery shopping or going to the post office. Most of those from whom we hear are proceeding with care, and want the government to proceed with care, but they know that tennis is objectively safe, and they want it to resume. Again, social distancing can be achieved in tennis with great effectiveness, both indoors and outdoors, in both singles and doubles play and instruction.
You have spoken to other club owners and industry leaders about this issue. How does the industry plan to make sure that tennis can be played risk-free indoors?
There are a multitude of experienced and competent tennis operators of both commercial and municipal tennis facilities, for-profit and nonprofit, at private clubs, commercial clubs, parks, schools, camps, and in other settings, who have the tools and the skills to operate tennis activities in a manner that is consistent with all relevant guidance issued by the CDC, WHO, USTA, the State and City of New York and other public health agencies and experts. We live in the northeast, where it is difficult or impossible to play tennis outdoors for much of the year. Some players prefer to play indoors, and some play indoors year-round, if they cannot be in the sun or prefer a climate controlled environment. I do not think that there is a material difference in the risks of indoor and outdoor play for tennis. Indoor tennis structures are generally larger than supermarkets, “Big Box” superstores and similar environments, all of which are currently open, and tennis courts have a tiny fraction of the number of individuals occupying these large spaces at any time, or over the course of a day. Maximum capacity of four people (or 5 including a coach) per 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of floor area is easily maintained at all times. In tennis air-structures (often referred to as “bubbles” or “domes”) and indoor buildings, airflow, which keeps the structures inflated and/or heated and cooled, is constant. Many covered courts have large garage doors and/or circulating fans that can be opened/operated to introduce even greater fresh air circulation. Indoor playing environments are easier to supervise than outdoor facilities, so it is more likely that staff and coaches will see and correct any behaviors that do not meet safety guidelines, and will be able to help players be safe.
We know that playing singles, and even doubles, can be done safely, but what about individual and group lessons? How can you ensure those can be operated risk-free?
Supervision in tennis programming and lessons is "built in," as almost all tennis coaches are well-trained and professionally certified, and can easily enforce distancing and other critical safety protocols on their courts, while at the same time monitoring nearby courts to make sure players are complying. COVID-19 safety protocols for tennis are straightforward, easy to execute, and highly effective in mitigating the risks of playing or learning tennis; risks that already are far fewer than in team sports or in most other sports activities. Hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray, colored markers and tape, and personal face coverings are the only supplies needed to make playing and learning tennis safe for all. Gloves can be used for ball handling, per the USTA guidelines, but are not really necessary, as balls do not have to be touched by players at all in instructional situations, or shared in play situations or when serving.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
This whole experience is so humbling and challenging, and inherently unfair, in that many of the things that society needs most, like schools and childcare, and most team sports and live entertainment, are the least socially distanced. But we are truly in this together, with no easy answers and hard choices at every turn. So many businesses and employers are helplessly waiting to see if they can reopen, and desperately trying to find ways to translate their businesses into this new reality, and to survive. Tennis is a sport and an industry, and we are facing those same challenges, as we struggle to protect our businesses and care for our employees, while trying to be ready with necessary solutions. While tennis is not the biggest or most popular sport in the USA, it is widely enjoyed, and many people, including many New Yorkers, rely on tennis for recreation, fitness, childcare, and social connection. I hope that we who love tennis, and run tennis businesses, end up being lucky that a tennis court is such a big, open space, and that we should be able to get back to tennis relatively quickly and very safely. I do hope that we can hear the sounds of tennis balls being struck again across more of the tennis courts in New York State, in the very near future.