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5.21.2020

Illinois COVID-19 Reopening and What I Think It Means for Combat Sports

 Disclaimer: What follows is not medical advice. The best way to avoid COVID-19 is NOT to train until herd immunity has been established or a vaccine discovered. This is a theoretical discussion and nothing more. Proceed at your own risk.

Let's start by being absolutely clear: we do not and will not have a treatment for COVID-19 in the foreseeable future. If you or your loved one gets a bad case of this the best modern medicine can do is support your body while we hope you recover. Second, a vaccine remains over a year away. Finally, we are weeks to months away from herd immunity, if we can even develop that with a virus that has rapidly mutated into several strains. If you want to minimize risk to yourself, your loved ones, your friends, and coworkers the only things that will do that are:
  1. Clean: Hand washing or sanitizing for at least 20 seconds before and after touching yourself, another human, or an object. If your academy were to open this would basically mean at the beginning of practice, before each round, after each round, and before leaving class. It also means showering thoroughly before and after practice. It means thoroughly wiping down each piece of nonlaunderable equipment with bleach wipes. So that’s a lot of sanitizer and bleach solution.
  2. Cover: Wearing a mask that decreases the spread of droplets. Not all masks are created equal so it needs to be a mask that blocks viral droplet particles. All masks are not created equal and masks are designed to protect others from you not you from them. We do not know if masks remain effective as we sweat and get them wet.  Note that exercise training masks and running masks contain filters that viral droplets go right through. They allegedly are rated for pollution and bacteria much larger than the diameter of a droplet. They look cool but they won’t do much other than provide an illusion of safety.
  3. Clear: Social distancing or being at least 6 feet away from other people. Thus the ultimate way to stay safe is to train by yourself. This is a great way to get stronger, more flexible, and better cardio. But it is not going to improve your technique or your timing. If your academy does open up strongly consider a single dedicated training partner and only training in classes of less than 10 people. If you are or live with some at high risk, don't train.
You are likely safer in an area with a greater volume of distribution, e.g. outside, than in a small volume of distribution, e.g. in the academy or gym.
The Illinois Reopening Plan is a regionalized 5 phase plan that can move us as a community closer to normal if public health indicators are favorable or reassert more restrictions if they are not. The plan uses cases, testing availability, and hospital resources (e.g. beds and ventilators) in predefined geographic areas. In the central part of the state we appear to be in Phase 2 with a good chance of moving to Phase 3 in June 2020. We don't need to rely on laypeople determining risk, the phases will shift based on public health data.
There is, of course, no specific instructions for combat sports in my state’s plan, the nearest things that we might be compared to are health clubs. This is a specious comparison, in health clubs, you can continue to social distance more than 6 feet, wear masks, and sanitize your hands between exercises while still getting a fulfilling workout. Combat sports like boxing, wrestling, muay thai, kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and mixed-martial arts however all involve core doctrines that include significant physical interaction and contact. USA Wrestling has released its Return to the Mat Guidelines, a phased approach that like the Illinois Reopening Plan avoids or minimizes organized, group, physical contact for the duration of time before herd immunity or wide-spread vaccine deployment. The Illinois Reopening Plan recommends masks and social distancing until the last phase. In phase 3 groups of up to 10 people can gather and in phase 4 up to 50 people with appropriate behavioral alterations. One-on-one personal training and small group classes may begin in phase 3.      
Reopening gyms and academies like they were before the pandemic is unrealistic before we have a vaccine or herd immunity. That said, these are small businesses that will not get sufficient support from the state or federal government. It is up to the martial arts as a community to save our gyms and schools. This may mean paying for classes at the same or reduced rate as instruction goes more virtual and classes are limited in both contact and population density. If we lose the societal checks on this novel coronavirus too early, academies and clubs will be the hot spots of their communities, the source of deaths for the old and the medically compromised. If we maximize social distancing with dedicated training partners, frequent hand sanitization, and mask adherence, we mitigate this risk. This means that practice will be a lot more hands-off and more often without interactions that we felt were the norm for our training. For example, as detailed in other plans starting with solo training and then adding partner drills at range (e.g. long-range stick or pad work) and forgoing body to body contact, e.g. knee play, wrestling or grappling until much later than anyone wants. It also means getting frequent testing, likely every two weeks as they become increasingly available and free. It means symptom checklists before each practice, likely completed on-line at a distance, and temperature checks at the door. It means a thorough cleaning of the gym and equipment before and after each session.
I do not believe that we are prevented from rolling, sparring, and other close-quarters work for the duration of the pandemic. However this will likely mean forming “pods” or small groups not including immediate family. In other words, it’s about finding one “monogamous" training partner that you will train with for the duration, either privately or in group settings. There is a two to three week “cooling off” period before switching partners to limit spread. Your risk is likely decreased if you only train with that person in a private setting, but with symptom checklists, strict hygiene protocols, temperature checks, frequent testing, and mask use. Masks are likely a custom made cloth mask that can withstand the rigors of training. Based on the Illinois plan I would not consider this sort of training until Phase 3 and it is likely more prudent to wait until Phase 4. Best case for Central Illinois that would be July. Any negative change in phase would place an immediate moratorium on training.
However, if this pod model means you quit your academy then we are destroying the art by eliminating the small businesses that are martial arts studios. We must balance our personal training needs by considering using pods while simultaneously supporting our academies and clubs. One way of doing this would be to run social distancing academy practices in parallel with pod classes virtually. Thus people who had access to private training spaces could work with their designated partner more closely without significantly increasing risk to others. Simultaneously those without a private training space could workout in a different fashion with alternate but still likely minimal risk. If things improve we could work gradually closer to how things used to be while realizing that they will never return to that baseline.
Stay safe.

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