Bar set too high for teams to meet sports exemption, say some Alberta organizations

·4 min read

When Alberta's premier announced team sports would have to shut down as part of a three-week state of emergency prompted by a surge in COVID cases, he offered a glimmer of hope.

"Leagues may apply for exemptions if they have well developed COVID safety plans," Jason Kenney said Tuesday.

But new details released by the province Thursday show those safety plans include criteria aimed at professional sporting events — such as private COVID testing prior to play and every five days thereafter.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health sent the following statement by email when CBC News asked the province to clarify what the criteria is for a team to be considered for an exemption.

"Given the seriousness of Alberta's current COVID-19 situation and the proposed duration of the measures (to be reviewed by December 15), exemption applications for sport will only be considered for those entities that can demonstrate adherence to the Guidance for Professional Sporting Events."

CBC News shared the list of exemption criteria with several sport organizations because it wasn't clearly indicated anywhere on the province's website. A spokesperson said it would be added later Thursday.

'Glimmer of hope'

This rigorous criteria comes as a surprise to amateur sports organizations.

They say they've been following all the health and safety protocols, keeping to their cohorts and maintaining contact tracing records, and had hoped to receive an exemption.

"There was a little glimmer of hope when it was like, 'hey, you can apply for an exemption.' I had some hope until you shattered it just now," said Carl Simonson, the assistant head coach at the University of Calgary Swim Club.

Other groups shared their disappointment and frustration.

They questioned why the premier even mentioned possible exemptions in the first place, if they were going to be so narrowly applied.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"We thought it probably could have been more clearly communicated in the initial announcement," said Kevin Kobelka, executive director of Hockey Calgary.

"I am pretty sure we are not going to be exempt, but I am going after that and we are going to do everything we can if we can be exempt. But I think it was primarily targeted right for the World Juniors and the pros," added Kobelka.

The 2021 World Juniors will take place at Rogers Place in Edmonton in December and January with no fans in attendance. Organizers will still need to apply for an exemption.

Safer in cohorts

Now that sports have been paused, kids will be looking for other ways to stay fit, and train in some cases. Some believe that may be less safe than having kept their sports open and running.

For example, Simonson says, kids on his swim team practised together and if there was a positive case, which he says there was, then the cohort was able to respond quickly and shut down for two weeks.

"They're actually better to be in our environment where, you know, we know everybody and we can connect very quickly with all of the contacts. Then if they went swimming at 10 o'clock this morning at a facility and then got COVID, they would have no no way of knowing where it came from," said SImonson.

He says pools are still open, so his members can go book a lane during public swim, which puts them more at risk of contracting the virus.

Outdoor rinks still open

As for hockey, ringette and figure skating, indoor rinks are mostly closed, but outdoor rinks are still open.

"People have access to outdoor facilities and they'll have to monitor them on their own," said Kobelka.

Kobelka says Hockey Calgary had a strict and safe plan in place to address any outbreaks that emerged.

He says Hockey Calgary had 350 cohorts, of about 40 players each, and during the first 2½ months of the season, they had to shut down 20-25 cohorts for a two-week isolation period.

"If one case came in, we quickly shut it down so that it didn't further spread. So we weren't seeing rapid spread across our program because we were following the guidelines that were put in place," said Kobelka.

What's next?

In the meantime, these groups are encouraging kids to meet virtually and stay in shape however they can.

Simonson says the swim club has some members who are gearing up for the Olympic trials in April and need to keep training.

"I feel bad for some of these guys. Like, certainly the guys at the top end who, like, this is their Olympic year. Or they're hanging on for one more year because last year was supposed to be their Olympic year, so they had to put work on hold and their life on hold," said Simonson.

The plan is to get back into sport on Dec. 18 as long as the cases drop.

Applications for exemptions and completed safety plans can be sent to Alberta Health via Biz Connect at BizConnect@gov.ab.ca.