Sanford Sports Complex eases back into operations after nearly shutting down for COVID-19

May 25, 2020

Even in the most restricted times of the COVID-19 pandemic, some athletes still found ways to work out at the Sanford Sports Complex.

At times, it required not leaving the complex.

“With the professional athletes from out of town, we essentially quarantined them to the sports complex,” said Jesse Smith, director of operations.

“They stay the hotel, take curbside delivery from Blue Rock and train at the Fieldhouse. That’s the model we’ve tried to follow.”

Pro football and basketball players continued to train NBA and European professional hopefuls. Sanford POWER and the Fieldhouse offered college and NFL virtual pro days for football players.

Physical and sports therapy remained opened as part of Sanford’s on-site clinic.

At the Scheels IcePlex, while groups were dramatically limited, word got out in the hockey and figure skating communities that it was one of maybe only two ice arenas open nationwide.

“My phone to this day is ringing off the hook with people from Minnesota looking for ice time, Iowa, I had a kid drive up from Oklahoma City. I have a lady here who flew her kids from Los Angeles and did a VRBO (vacation rental) for figure skating,” general manager Brian Prisbe said.

“At one point in April, I know the rink in Montana was open and us. We may have been the only two rinks in the United States in early April that were open. All of Minnesota and Wisconsin was shut down. A lot of the rinks knew this wasn’t going to be a one week or one month blip, so they took their ice out.”

In recent weeks, operations at the sports complex have gradually allowed more participation.

“We are hoping to be fully operational within the city guidelines but taking it very slowly,” said Steve Young, president of Sanford Sports.

“Just because we can fit kids on the basketball court within the guidelines doesn’t mean we’re going to.”

Young became president of Sanford Sports in early March, two weeks before it began to shut down major portions of its operation. Tournaments abruptly ended, events canceled, and programming shifted largely to virtual training.

“We really had to re-create ourselves,” said Scott Hettenbach, director of the Sanford POWER sports performance program. “Our coaches became social media experts. We had to figure out what the rhythm would look like.”

That took the form of Zoom and YouTube workouts – up to 30 a week – with some drawing as many as 100 kids at once.

“Our basketball coordinator has become a Twitter celebrity. He’s got impressions in the tens of thousands and retweets from all over the world,” Smith said. “I’ve been really proud of how the team here has taken a holistic approach to bringing these athletes back. We didn’t just turn the lights on and invite the kids to come train.”

New protocols

Two weeks ago, the complex began bringing small groups of athletes back, mostly high school students.

“When they come in the Fieldhouse, it’s a different experience now, keeping in mind social distancing, disinfecting equipment, washing hands and integrating kids into that environment in a new way,” Hettenbach said.

There are big, blue, round stickers on the floor to give a visual reminder for distancing, disinfecting stations throughout the weight room and cleaning solution at each piece of equipment.

Coaches also put together plans to ease athletes back into workouts “so they don’t hurt themselves,” Smith said. “They put together exercises they could do at home with minimal equipment to prepare their bodies to come back and work out.”

At the Pentagon, leaders are building out fall and winter schedules with scenarios that include no spectators, fewer spectators and a heavier delivery of digital content, Smith said.

“It will be phased, and we’ll be working closely with the city and our own medical professionals to determine the best way to open back up,” he said.

Volleyball camps start this week at the Pentagon and are scheduled to continue through the summer, limited to only athletes and safety protocols in place.

“Our fans and spectators and athletes who engage with this complex are showing signs of almost eagerness to come in,” Young said.

IcePlex adjusts

It had been years since Sioux Falls last hosted a state high school hockey tournament. And when it finally returned here in March at the Scheels IcePlex, only a game and a half could be played before the tournament had to shut down because of COVID-19.

“So it was emotionally, for the youth hockey scene, about as bad a way to start the COVID-19 era as it could be,” said Joe Zueger, president of the IcePlex advisory council.

“We were in game two of the tournament, and they sent everyone home. It was a big bang to start the downturn.”

The IcePlex changed its operating approach to run its three-sheet facility like it was a one-sheet facility in terms of how many small groups were scheduled on it.

The 95,000-square-foot building still limited itself to 10 patrons at a time and spaced out events between its north and south rinks, leaving time in between. Locker rooms were closed, and only one family bathroom was left open.

“We had really strong, really high demand,” Prisbe said. “We kept it super low key, but with word of mouth, it started to spread that we were open.”

In March and April, space sold out with local skaters and hockey players. Seniors in the Sioux Falls Figure Skating Club held a performance that was livestreamed on Facebook, and they left to a parade in the parking lot.

When word spread to Minnesota, demand picked up even more.

“It was very much a slow trickle with a genuine commitment to the rule of 10 and clear communication with the city to make sure they knew what we were up to,” Zueger said.

“There now are way more people around the country who know what the Scheels IcePlex is. We’ve had to make more operating and policy calls in the last 60 days than the last three years, and we probably said no way more than we said yes.”

There have been requests for tournaments, including in early June, and “we said no,” Zueger said. “They would have been bringing in teams from all over the Midwest, and we think it’s too early. I fully expect a bunch of tournaments that didn’t happen that traditionally happen in April and May will happen. They’re just going to happen later.”

The plan is to open June 1 for games and user groups that typically use the IcePlex this time of year. An employee has been designated to constantly sanitize. Staff are telling participants not to come in if they feel sick and to have one parent bring the child to a game versus the whole family.

“Prepare before an ice event, just know your kid is healthy, and come in and get out as quickly as possible,” Prisbe said.

Tennis, gymnastics centers take precautions

Cutting back or stopping training is especially difficult for athletes such as gymnasts.

Power & Grace Gymnastics was forced to do a complete shutdown, though. Aspects of programming such as strength and stretch training and preschool class moved online, but gymnasts ready to finish the competitive season simply stopped.

“They can do some training through visualization techniques and can certainly continue to keep up their strength and flexibility routines, but there just isn’t anything that replaces the training of swinging on the bars or vaulting over the vault table. So it’s been a difficult transition for them,” co-owner Kathy Champoux said.

“Our team coaches utilized Zoom calling and did some creative workouts. As time went on, it became evident that it was going to be awhile before the team members would actually be back in the gym, so our Zoom calls were done on a regular, consistent basis — also adding in some special guest coaches like a yoga instructor and a former Canadian National Team member to make it challenging as well as helpful.”

The gym is just starting to bring people back in small groups. Its cheerleading tryouts were held last week, and the first week of regular classes starts in June.

A limited number of parents will start to be let in, spaced apart and watching from behind barriers. Students will receive hand sanitizer at the door, and there are sanitizing stations set up throughout the gym. All coaches will be wearing masks, and chalk won’t be shared. The foam pits will be closed.

The gym bought a disinfecting sprayer to spray a fine mist over everything with a CDC-approved disinfectant at the end of every day.

“I think it’s important for parents and businesses to realize that some of the students will have some apprehension about coming into the facility since they have been away from everything for so long. They’ve heard all kinds of ‘don’ts’ in the past few weeks — don’t touch that, don’t stand too close,” Champoux said.

“They’ve learned that we are all being very cautious, and they don’t always understand what it is that’s out there causing all of this — but it feels threatening, and for a young child, that’s just scary. We need to be able to show them that we have thought through our actions and are doing everything we can to give them a positive, fun, relaxing and safe experience.”

Power & Grace is still planning on its summer day camps but with reduced attendance. More than half of students said in a survey they would be ready to return to the gym in June.

“That’s great,” Champoux said. “We have definitely learned that we need to be adaptable and to think outside of the box. So we’ll see what the next few weeks bring.”

Huether Family Match Pointe canceled its spring tennis programming and limited its occupancy to 10 or fewer patrons for private lessons and some court rental time. Every other court was open to limit the number of people in the building.

The center is transitioning to phase two of its reopening this week, resuming group programming with limited class size.

“Our challenge has been to balance people’s desires to get back to activities but doing so responsibly, which means smaller class sizes, teaching classes in a different structure than we normally would to keep kids spread out,” tennis director Mark Vellek said.

“As badly as we would love our programming to operate as normal, the safety of our players is at the forefront of our decision-making right now.”

The center has implemented deep cleaning, especially of key touch points regularly throughout the day, with hand soap and sanitizer in place throughout the facility.

The following protocols also are in place:

  • Play is limited to locals and those who have not traveled in and out of state recently.
  • Activities will be limited to random court times, private lessons and smaller group lessons and drills.
  • Younger youth classes will be held to smaller class sizes.
  • Throughout May, there will be two courts blocked off with no play to keep patrons spread out.
  • Ball carts will be disinfected weekly with an ozone machine.
  • Pros will have their own ball cart they use each day to limit contact with each cart.
  • Staff with any symptoms will not be in to work.
  • Group classes will be taught in a way to keep players as distanced as possible, and no large group games will be played.
  • Staff members will wash hands after each lesson and will disinfect equipment at the end of each day.
  • All balls will be picked up with ball mowers to limit contact with balls.
  • Locker room showers will not be available.

The center is exploring getting kids back into United States Tennis Association tournament play, Vellek said.

“We have a unique, state-of-the-art facility that we are really proud of and makes us a perfect place to begin hosting competitions again,” he said.

“We have a large, upstairs viewing deck that allows spectators to stay spread out, and all of our courts have video cameras that would allow us to livestream matches online; if we resume competitions with no spectators, parents could watch the matches online through our website.”

Food, entertainment slowly returning

Great Shots golf entertainment center has started allowing players to come back, with changes including required reservations, temperature checks and spacing between bays. The bar and restaurant haven’t reopened yet but do serve food and drinks within the bays.

“It’s been very positive with people coming out and doing it in a really respectful way,” Young said. “The public has always been gracious to follow our guidelines and sanitize before they come into the bay. We don’t have to walk around much and remind people to stay in their bay. For the most part, people want to get out and enjoy Great Shots for what it is.”

Blue Rock Bar & Grill has been open for curbside service and is scheduled to reopen the dining rooms June 1.

Sanford also has not stopped work on development at the complex. Plans to add another athletic venue, maybe for baseball or soccer, and to define the “Sanford Mile” with retail and other food or entertainment options live on.

“Our office of development is working harder now than they ever have to find partners,” Smith said. “This (the pandemic) has caused a lot of companies to hit pause and take stock of where they’re at, so our office continues to seek out those partnerships, inside and outside of the community. We have traction. We have ongoing conversations. I wouldn’t say there’s anything immediate, but as we get into fall, we’re hopeful some of those will start to come to fruition.”

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Sanford Sports Complex eases back into operations after nearly shutting down for COVID-19

“We really had to re-create ourselves.” Take a look at how the Sanford Sports Complex kept training athletes throughout the pandemic — and how it’s gradually bringing more back.

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