Montgomery County rescinded its approval for a soccer tournament this weekend — with thousands of players expected — after a player from a prior tournament tested positive for COVID-19.
Last weekend, the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown hosted its first soccer tournament this year after coronavirus restrictions were lifted enough for one to take place in a safe manner with restrictions and guidelines.
But during the all-girls tournament portion of the Bethesda Premier Cup last weekend, a player from a Pennsylvania-based team began to feel ill.
When tournament officials were told, the player and her team, along with the only team that played a game against the Pennsylvania team, were removed from the tournament and sent home, according to Matt Libber, executive director of the SoccerPlex.
An all-boys soccer tournament portion of the Premier Cup was scheduled for this weekend, but plans had to be canceled two days before teams were set to begin playing. The county rescinded its letter of approval for the second tournament on Wednesday morning, citing safety issues.
About 3,600 players on around 190 teams signed up to play in last weekend’s tournament. A bigger group was expected to play in the tournament this weekend.
“Unfortunately, precautionary measures prescribed in your previous requests for Letters of Approval appear to have not been successful in prevention of disease transmission between participants at recent events,” the county’s letter says.
Libber told Bethesda Beat in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon that he knew it was possible that the county could shut down this weekend’s tournament, but was caught off guard that it happened shortly before it was to start.
“There was no warning of that,” he said of the county’s email notifying him of the cancellation for the tournament, which was supposed to begin on Friday.
Libber said he understands the county’s need to make decisions based on public health, but thinks sports have not been treated equally.
The county’s restriction on soccer was lifted on Aug. 24 after community members, including Libber, pushed for soccer to be allowed. Officials recategorized it as a medium-risk sport instead of high risk.
Athletic tournaments are not allowed under the county’s second phase of reopening, but the Premier Cup at the SoccerPlex was approved after a detailed COVID-19 plan was formed for the event.
Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said during a media briefing on Wednesday that the county is investigating exposure to teams at the all-girls tournament, but no other cases have been found.
“I want to make it very clear — [the Maryland Soccerplex] plan was very robust and they made every reasonable effort that they could to make that tournament as safe as possible,” he said. “But simply put, there was at least one person who participated in last week’s tournament who was infected and did likely expose other participants.”
The county made a “good-faith effort” to help the nonprofit host the tournaments, but because of the incident last weekend and the increases in cases countywide, the approval was rescinded, Stoddard said.
Decreasing sports capacity to 25 people would make soccer impossible, Libber said.
“I don’t think they understand the ramifications from it,” he said. “You might as well say no sports.”
The letter of approval for the tournament was first submitted on Sept. 25. It was renewed on Nov. 10 after the County Council amended COVID-19 restrictions in the executive order.
The renewed proposal was approved on Nov. 12.
Sports have been connected to fewer COVID-19 cases than restaurants and family gatherings, yet those are still allowed, Libber said, and restaurants can still rely on carryout and delivery.
“It’s been an equity issue in this county. … If we shut down across the board, I’m all for that. But it has to be applied evenly across the region. This county-by-county approach is not working,” he said.
If county officials approached the SoccerPlex sooner, the two parties might have been able to work out a different plan for the tournament, such as having no spectators, Libber said.
Some of the SoccerPlex’s COVID-19 regulations included spacing out games, keeping spectators and teams on opposite sides of the field, requiring everyone to wear masks except for players on the field, hourly cleanings and removing benches.
“There wasn’t anything else we could have done,” Libber said. “The one case we’re talking about — she probably was not honest with us and was feeling sick before.”
By the end of the year, the nonprofit expects to have lost $2.7 million in revenue — a large portion of its annual budget. Its next tournament is scheduled to be in March.
“It is what it is and we’ll find a way to keep moving forward. … This is trying to get kids an opportunity [to play sports] who have been frankly locked up for the last nine months,” Libber said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.