Les Hernandez, president of Southeast Idaho Youth Football League, coaches a player. Hernandez has shifted his season this year to a series of no-contact skill camps due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The safety of the approximately 1,400 regional children who participate in the Southeast Idaho Youth Football League has always been the top priority for the league’s president, Les Hernandez.

About two years ago, his league was among the first youth football programs to eliminate kickoff returns for seventh- and eight-graders to make the game safer. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league finds itself making even more drastic changes in the interest of safety, Hernandez said.

The league has chosen to cancel games and host a series of no-contact skill development camps in lieu of traditional practices. The league was among a few businesses and organizations Southeastern Idaho Public Health recently singled out for finding creative ways to operate while minimizing the risk to the public amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hernandez explained the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks football and wrestling among the riskiest sports for spreading COVID-19. He said Southeastern Idaho Public Health helped his program assess its operations and come up with a safe solution, which he anticipates will be needed only for the upcoming season, which starts in September.

“Obviously this was not a popular decision, and we knew it wasn’t going to be a popular decision, but the bottom line is it was the right thing to do,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said parents and coaches were initially skeptical of the league’s choice, but lately he’s heard far more comments that it was the right decision.

“We’ve got to do what’s best for our community and our kids,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want to be part of the spread of COVID-19.”

The league includes approximately 60 teams, spanning from the Utah border north to Shelley. The skill camps will be taught by coaches, and teams won’t commingle or travel to other areas. Hernandez said his governing body, USA Football, will provide extra footballs, flags, cones and equipment. During August, the league will also be partnering with a speed trainer from Utah to conduct a speed camp and a trainer from Rigby to host camps for quarterbacks and wide receivers.

The league mulled simply canceling for this year but chose the skills camps as the next best option to an actual season.

“I think what we’re trying to tell parents this is going to be a positive, healthy environment,” Hernandez said. “We’re trying to focus on a positive activity for the kids.”

Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann said the camps were the result of a couple of months of careful consideration about what would be the safest option for athletes, coaches and the community.

“I think the solution they arrived at is very positive,” Mann said.

Mann said several other local businesses and organizations also deserve credit for their efforts to keep the public safe amid the crisis.

Mann credited Portneuf Valley Soccer Club for making the tough choice to suspend its season.

Among retailers, she said Costco Wholesale has a rigorous policy to prevent sick employees from reporting to work and also requires face masks of both staff and customers. Costco has limited the number of shoppers allowed inside the store, removed sample booths, installed plexiglass at checkout booths and placed directional lines on its floors to direct traffic flow.

Fred Meyer has online ordering available and has installed plexiglass at checkout lines. Like many stores, Fred Meyer also has markings letting customers know to stand 6 feet apart.

Regarding restaurants, Mann said 5th Street Bagelry and Jakers Bar and Grill are both requiring employees to wear masks.

Bannock County has decided against hosting concerts at the Portneuf Wellness Complex.

Mann said there are countless other examples of businesses and organizations making good choices within the community.

“We’re grateful to the businesses that are making choices that are protective of their staff and their client base because it’s going to take all of us doing our part to help keep our community healthy and safe and not end up in a situation like we’re seeing in some other states right now,” Mann said.