Concerns around Omicron are growing as coronavirus cases spike across the province, but organizers of an Ontario youth hockey tournament hosting nearly 500 players said that they'll still be hitting the ice next week.
The 2021 Petrolia Regional Silver Stick tournament, aimed at youth under the age of 18, is smack dab in the middle of the holidays, between Christmas and New Year's. It runs from Dec. 27 to 30.
The event, which has been run for 53 years, will see 18 teams congregating from across the province, from as far as three hours away.
Nick Salaris, the director of the tournament, said they've had two parents reach out with concerns about hosting a tournament at this particular time.
One parent had asked them to consider cancelling this year's tournament, but they plan to proceed, saying that they're respecting all of the public health guidelines.
"We know that everyone's at a very different place with COVID in their comfort level," said Salaris. "We've offered full refunds for teams that have registered and don't feel comfortable in coming, but we're comfortable."
The other parent had asked for information about the COVID-19 protocols that will be in place, which organizers subsequently sent to the teams and posted on the tournament's website.
So far only one team pulled out, but it was because multiple players had tested positive for the virus.
Willing to change course
Tournament organizers are ready to change course if need be.
"In the end, we will follow all the guidance set forth by public health and the municipality and even the governing bodies of hockey," said Salaris. "If it comes down to the point where they say, 'It's not safe for you to run the tournament,' then we will cancel accordingly."
Salaris went on to say that organizers understand that pandemic circumstances can change "at the drop of a hat."
"But we're following all municipal and public health guidelines to guide us and steer us in the right direction."
A spokesperson for Lambton Public Health said that tournament organizers did contact them early this month. They "have not directed organizations to cancel events or activities that are permitted under current provincial direction."
The protocols in place
The tournament is structured so that no more than 500 people will be allowed in the Petrolia's Greenwood Recreation Centre, where the games will take place. Salaris said that this is half capacity of what is usually allowed in the arena.
Attendees who don't live together must keep a two-metre distance from each other, and masks must be worn the whole time, except for players on the ice. Food and drinks aren't allowed either, and a vaccine pass system will be in effect.
"We're confident in being able to run the tournament, but we're also realistic that tomorrow this could be a very different interview considering where everything's going with COVID," Salaris said.
Like many things in 2020, last year's tournament had been cancelled because of the pandemic. He hopes this year's event won't suffer a similar fate.
"If we cancel it, we have to," he said. "We'll regret it, but it'll be for the right reasons. But if we do it, we're strictly doing it, basically, for the kids to allow them an opportunity to enjoy something they haven't been able to do for almost two years now."