TRAVERSE CITY — Brigid Harrington of Traverse City was watching her fiance compete in a hockey tournament at Centre Ice Arena the weekend of Aug. 14-16.
The players made their rounds on and off the ice, then packed like sardines without masks while sitting on a bench for several minutes at a time, swishing water and spitting at their feet.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wait a minute, how is that safe? How is that social distancing?’” Harrington said. “It wasn’t at all.”
Weeks later, it’s the source of 35 cases of COVID-19 across eight different counties.
Tuesday’s news that a Traverse City West student-athlete tested positive for COVID-19 wasn’t the first time a local Health Department became involved with a COVID-19 case in sports.
The Manistee Saints started their baseball season June 20, The Traverse City Pit Spitters began July 1, statewide hockey tournaments and camps moved to Centre Ice Arena, and prep soccer and volleyball competitions began here before in any other area of the state.
“There were sports happening more in our region, with people traveling here to play something that they couldn’t play in their own region,” said Lisa Peacock, Health Officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.
Then came the contact tracing investigations when COVID-19 cases arose.
Signs are posted outside locker rooms at Centre Ice to only allow eight players at any given time. Harrington’s fiance told her that mitigation factors were ignored by some.
Three days later her fiance began feeling what he believed to be allergy symptoms; Harrington started feeling them herself two days later.
On Aug. 21, the Grand Traverse County Health Department tabbed the tournament as a location of potential COVID-19 community exposure, as a sports outbreak investigation commenced.
It’s unclear if the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services included the Centre Ice outbreak in the set of 30 outbreaks listed in its “Public Guidance for Contact Sports” document, as a department spokesperson didn’t have the names or locations of them to provide.
After Harrington and her fiance both tested positive for COVID-19, she wondered what Centre Ice was doing differently since the outbreak.
Prior to the outbreak, Todd Spaulding, executive director of the rink, said the rink hadn’t experienced any cases related to hockey. He said he reached out to a number of people to make sure their protocols were correct.
“They were all thumbs up,” Spaulding said. “Everything we’re doing is what they would be doing as a professional cleaning company.”
Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for Grand Traverse County, said in the Health Department’s investigation, they were unable to determine whether the exposure happened on the ice or off.
“Most of the cases participated in multiple activities where people were unmasked and in close proximity to one another,” Hirschenberger said.
“Aside from the tournament play, our team found that organized meals and group socializing took place and it is believed that those other activities also contributed to the spread.”
There’s currently no active COVID-19 outbreak in MDHHS Emergency Preparedness Region 7, the region that includes Grand Traverse along with 17 other counties, according to its data dashboard updated Sept. 10.
Multiple health officers in the region said the only sports-related outbreak (two or more people) they recalled in August was the Centre Ice outbreak in the time period since high school sports resumed in northern Michigan.
The key to letting kids continue to play, Hirschenberger said, is to limit off field group activities and to wear a mask when people can’t be spaced six feet apart.