The City of Orillia has decided to remove lacrosse nets, lock up soccer nets, and deny public access to the lighting at the popular turf field at the West Orillia Sports Complex.
Kallum Holdsworth, an 18-year-old local soccer player, says he’s "beyond frustrated" with the city’s decision.
“They’ve locked everything up so we can’t use the field. It’s nonsense,” Holdsworth said.
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke says denying access to the equipment that is usually left out for athletes at the West Orillia Sports Complex is not the city’s way of discouraging people from using fields and parks.
“Physical activity is an important part of remaining healthy both in body and mind, especially during the pandemic. As such, we hope (people) will take advantage of the free usage opportunities within city parks,” Clarke said in a written statement to OrilliaMatters.
However, Holdsworth feels the city is trying to send athletes another message.
“It’s pretty clear they do not want us out there in their parks. All athletes have right now during the pandemic for both our physical and mental health is the opportunity to go to (West Orillia Sports Complex) and train, and they’ve taken that away from us,” he said.
“All throughout the winter I was situationally depressed. I felt so lost because I couldn’t do anything, and now that winter is over, I’ve been able to go out to the field and it just brightens my whole day," said the active teen. "I don’t understand why they would want to take that away.”
Last year, the city’s Emergency Management Committee decided to open city outdoor facilities and make lighting available for unorganized use on a first-come first-serve basis through the summer, fall, and winter.
“This encouraged a mental health break for many users and provided an outlet during the lockdowns that ensued throughout the year. This was also done in response to organized user groups being unable to operate throughout the pandemic during this time leaving the fields available for usage,” Clarke said.
“It has been decided that since user groups are once again able to operate and are currently booking fields starting in April, the City will no longer be subsidizing free usage of the fields and lighting," the mayor explained.
Nathan Doyle, a 20-year-old Georgian College rugby player, laments the decision.
“It would help the physical and mental wellbeing of athletes in the city if the lights were on so people could train and exercise in the evening when they are getting off work,” he said.
“Now that we are back in lockdown, and there are no organized sports taking place, there is no reason as to why the lights shouldn’t be left on for the public.”
While the turf field use is restricted to local athletes, the tennis courts at the West Orillia Sports Complex are open with accessible lighting, noted Clarke.
“We have staff to facilitate the opening and maintenance. Other courts (tennis and pickleball) are slated to open as they normally would (around the beginning of May). At present, we don’t have our full contingent of staff, including our seasonal staff who have not started yet,” Clarke explained.
Doyle believes if the lights at the tennis courts are accessible, then there is no reason why the lights at the turf field remain dark.
“What is there to maintain? What is there to govern? People are going to congregate there anyway during the daytime, so what’s the difference if it’s at noon or in the evening when people are getting off work?” Doyle questioned.
“I’ve never seen anyone out there working on the field. It’s turf. What would they possibly need to facilitate?”
Holdsworth also questions the city’s reasoning for opening the tennis courts while removing nets and shutting off the lights on the turf field.
“I have never seen any staff out there, and they don’t need staff out there. People are out there by themselves or with someone from their own household and they are probably 50 metres apart doing their own thing, where on the tennis courts they are closer together, touching the ball and everything,” he said.
Clarke says the concern about the turf field is around potential mass gatherings.
"In as much as most people will adhere to the safety measures, groups gathering, like we saw last weekend, and playing games in close proximity, without masking and with increased respiration is not an option and flies in the face of all we are trying to accomplish,” Clarke said.
However, Holdsworth disputes Clarke’s claim of large group gatherings and says everyone at the field has been social distancing.
“I was there on the weekend and people were in groups of two or three, but that’s better than people in houses having parties, hanging out in groups of ten. At least on the field people can be separated,” he said.
Doyle says he believes the city should be more concerned about groups at all city parks, not just the facility in west Orillia.
“Nobody can stay locked up 24/7," lamented Doyle. "Everyone needs to get out and have some physical activity. I have a trail right outside my house and it’s no different there, 15-20 people are there every time I go walk my dog. I think it’s unfair that the city is targeting the Rotary Place field,” he said.
Despite the frustrations from various athletes, Clarke says the city is doing its best to encourage healthy living while outdoor activities are permitted by the Ontario government.
“There are many different open spaces available throughout most city parks that are always open to the public for free usage,” he said.
Clarke also notes that while the turf field at the West Orillia Sports Complex remains open, natural fields cannot be used at this time until they have dried from the winter season. Usage of the natural fields would jeopardize them for the rest of the season, he cautioned.
Because of the temporary closure of city baseball diamonds, local baseball players have also been using the turf field recently for training purposes.
Orillia-based baseball academy, Chaser’s Baseball Development, has been helping local youth develop their baseball skills since 26-year-old Chase Walach started the business in the spring of 2015.
“Especially with the diamonds staying closed, (the turf field) gives us another spot to do some training until the diamonds are eventually ready for us to go and use,” Walach said.
While Walach is happy that athletes can still train at the field during the stay-at-home order, he says he’s disappointed the city is denying athletes light access to train in the evenings. While having light access isn’t dire during the late spring and summer months, it could become a bigger issue into the fall, Walach fears.
“Between school and work, teenagers don’t have a lot of time during the day to get out and train. They can only look forward to the days that they are off, so it’s definitely going to suck for them if this is still going on in the fall. That would throw a nasty blow at them,” he said.
Despite some restricted access, Walach says being able to use the turf field during daylight hours has been helpful for local youth.
“It gives them a little more hope that there is going to be a sports season this year; it helps with their motivation,” he said.
“It gives the kids something to help get their minds off of what’s going on. I’ve had a number of kids come to me and say they are starting to have mental health issues and it’s not fair.”
Like Holdsworth and Doyle, Walach admits the West Orillia Sports Complex can be a busy spot during the stay-at-home order. However, he doesn’t perceive the field as a high-risk area of spreading COVID-19.
“When I’ve been there it’s been pretty busy, but everyone stays within their own little groups,” he said.
“I know from looking at it from afar it looks like there are too many people there, but people aren’t mingling with other people. They do their own thing and then they leave," he said.