Concern is rising in New England over the potential for coronavirus outbreaks related to hockey games, which are known for plenty of hard breathing and physical contact in rinks bounded by plexiglass walls.
Officials in Vermont are reexamining their coronavirus precautions for hockey after a cluster of cases, while games have been halted temporarily in New Hampshire and Maine because of virus concerns.
The moves come as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study this week that warned hockey games could turn into “superspreader events.”
“Hockey is a game that could facilitate transmission of COVID-19 for several reasons. It’s played indoors, the plexiglass shields around the rink limit ventilation, and the exertion of the players mean they are breathing heavily while close to each other — either during play or on the bench, and also in the locker rooms,” said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The Vermont Department of Health is investigating an outbreak among members of youth and adult recreational hockey and broomball teams playing at a facility in Montpelier. Eighteen people were infected among players and close contacts, most of them adults, the state said Friday in a statement.
Vermont Governor Phil Scott has instructed state officials “to undertake a review of evidence-based studies related to COVID transmission in sports, and report back next week with recommendations for any changes that should be made to our current recreational and school-based sports guidance — considering both broad-based and sport-specific changes,” said Ben Truman, spokesman for state’s Department of Public Health.
Changes being considered include: Making ice time at Vermont rinks available only to Vermont-based teams for practice, and limiting games to Vermont teams: and prohibiting Vermont players and teams from traveling to out-of-state games, Truman said in an e-mail.
The governor also urged players and families “to abide by the strong guidance we already have in place,” Truman said.
New Hampshire is “pausing” all hockey activities in indoor rinks for two weeks following positive coronavirus tests for 158 people associated with the sport over the last two months, Governor Chris Sununu and health officials said Thursday. College team activity is on hold, in addition to youth and amateur organization activities.
“We’ve been working with this community for a couple of months; it’s not getting better,” Sununu said.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday in a briefing that his state continues to investigate the case of a hockey referee who may have exposed more than 400 people before testing positive. One person so far has tested positive who may have been in contact with the referee. Shah also noted, “My counterparts in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts happen to be investigating outbreaks associated with hockey.”
The Maine Amateur Hockey Association, after receiving a warning letter from the state, suspended all games last weekend and is now suspending all games through Tuesday out of an “abundance of caution” to make sure that all its members are following guidelines from the Maine CDC and USA Hockey, the governing body for ice hockey in the United States.
Mike Keaney, president of the Maine association, said that since ice hockey was allowed to resume in Maine at the end of June, “We’ve literally had hundreds of games and more than a thousand hours of practice time, and there have been only two instances where participants have tested positive.”
He emphasized that there was no proof the referee had transmitted the virus to anybody.
Keaney said the association will now require referees to wear face masks and use electronic whistles, and he hopes people can return to the ice soon. “What we’ve been doing in Maine has been working. We feel we can do it safely. We just want to continue to do what we’ve been doing, and hopefully we’ll be back playing games soon.”
E-mails seeking comment from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health weren’t immediately returned.
On Saturday, Tory Mazzola, spokesperson for the state’s COVID command center, issued the following statement: “The COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team has highlighted the activities in and around hockey rinks with municipal leaders to raise awareness. In addition to contact tracing activities for recent outbreaks at ice rinks, this includes an emphasis on ensuring that appropriate precautions are being followed to best protect families and children.”
In Massachusetts, coronavirus fears were raised this week when a Hanover High School hockey team member tested positive for coronavirus over the holiday weekend. Three dozen players were self-quarantining this week, school officials said.
Hockey players and coaches have already been making adjustments in light of the pandemic. In Massachusetts, adult recreational leagues and youth hockey teams follow coronavirus safety guidance issued by the state, according to Kevin Kavanagh, executive director of Massachusetts Hockey, which is an affiliate of USA Hockey.
Kavanagh said that in Massachusetts body checking is no longer allowed in youth hockey, while it was already forbidden in most adult leagues. Referees and coaches wear masks and referees carry electronic whistles. Players wear masks while sitting on the bench, and some even wear them the entire time they’re skating. Centers are required to wear masks whenever they take faceoffs. Locker rooms are limited to 50 percent capacity.
Rinks have set up one-way entrances and exits for players to use. Pieces of tape have been placed on benches and inside locker rooms to ensure that players sit far enough apart, and folding chairs have been set up next to benches to provide extra space. Postgame handshakes are a no-no.
Only one spectator is allowed per player, and “there are facilities that have chosen not to allow any,” said Kavanagh.
“We’ve been working closely with the state since Day 1,” he said. “Our job is to educate and inform the players, parents, and coaches.”
Overall, hockey programs in Massachusetts have done well with making the changes, he said.
Jeremiah Manion and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press was also included.
Martin finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.