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Despite new guidelines, Sports Force Parks likely to remain closed

Mississippians will soon be allowed to gather in larger groups and return to city and state parks. They might have to wait just a bit longer to get back inside Vicksburg’s sports complex, however.

Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday laid out a plan that will start loosening statewide restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The revised guidelines include allowing gatherings of up to 20 people and reopening outdoor recreational venues. That would include Sports Force Parks on the Mississippi, but the owner of its management company said it might take a while for the state’s rules to match what the facility is actually designed to do.

“I’m not sure if the governor is a baseball player, but if I bring a team with kids, coaches, moms and dads, I’ve already exceeded the number and they don’t have a team to play yet,” said Brian Storm, the president and CEO of Sports Fields, Inc., which manages the park. “It may empower us to open for some local use. We are eager to open the park, and we have exciting things planned for this summer. But we can’t do it with 20 people.”

Although he said the park will remain closed until the maximum occupancy of a gathering goes up considerably, Storm was encouraged that the governor did increase it. Previous guidelines had capped public gatherings at 10 people.

“I’m overjoyed to hear that. The governor, and hopefully the mayor, are in sync. We want to open just like the next guy. We also want to keep our guests safe and return the city to the level of prosperity we intended, because we were off to a great spring,” Storm said. “It sounds like we’re going to get on a path. As long as those benchmarks are met, that’s a good thing.”

Sports Force Parks on the Mississippi has a dozen fields that host youth baseball and softball tournaments nearly every weekend during normal operations. The facility, which opened in early 2019, has also hosted scores of other activities from youth football practices to high school soccer and college baseball games. Its artificial turf fields became a refuge for many high school baseball and softball teams along the I-20 corridor when heavy rain this February left their home fields saturated.

It has canceled several tournaments since mid-March, however, when the pandemic shut down many aspects of daily life, and has sat idle for more than a month. The park remained open until city and state restrictions closed all recreational venues in late March.

Storm noted that the open spaces of the park would allow fans and teams to practice safe social distancing techniques, and the staff was capable of conducting regular cleanings of surfaces and buildings.

The weekend tournaments are tentatively scheduled to resume on May 15. The cap of 20 people — whether it’s per field or for the entire park — makes hosting tournaments unfeasible, however.

“We have a lot of square footage out there. We can spread people around, and we fully intend to do that,” Storm said. “Our goal is to open the park and be able to do it with a multitude of teams that allow us to be an economic generator.”

Storm, who was interviewed by The Post as the governor was conducting his press conference, said there were also a number of questions about the new guidelines that needed to be clarified.

“There’s all these dynamic issues. If a team shows up with 23 players and we can only let 20 in, do we do eenie, meeny, miney, moe to see who we let in? Do we allow one team in, and then they have to wait until someone leaves?” Storm said. “Each of those fields is a 2 ½-acre footprint. So is each one a gathering place? Is the park a gathering place? We are all living in a place none of us know anything about right now. Our political leaders are making decisions that they think are best. If you give me the guidelines, I’m going to do my best to follow them.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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