Curling season already on thin ice faces uncertain future due to pandemic

A curling season struggling to gain traction due to the pandemic was dealt a blow Monday as a high-profile team pulled out of a prominent upcoming bonspiel citing an "increase in COVID-19 cases."

Team Rachel Homan tweeted that it made the "difficult decision to withdraw" from the Oct. 9-12 Stu Sells Toronto Tankard. Ontario has seen a significant uptick in cases of late with an additional 615 cases reported Monday.

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Homan's withdrawal came a day after the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard, a bonspiel that attracted a number of top domestic teams, pulled the plug on half of its playoff draw when a player received a notification on their COVID Alert app.

Organizers planned to meet later Monday to discuss the status of this week's event, which is to be played at the same KW Granite Club venue in Waterloo, Ont.

"We're doing everything we need to do," said organizer Gerry Geurts. "We feel confident in our protocols in general. We've gone above and beyond."

Curling is slowly resuming play around the world with many new rules, protocols and restrictions in place depending on the country and the province.

Several top teams - including 2014 Olympic champs Jennifer Jones and Brad Jacobs - made their season debut last week. Curlers were on board with the new rules, modifications and protocols, and all involved seemed pleased with the setup.

All athletes had to download the COVID Alert app to participate. The app notifies a person when they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Distancing and venue capacity rules were in effect under return-to-play guidelines.

Benches and chairs by the sheets were blocked with yellow caution tape. Players arrived in their uniforms and warmed up in the parking lot.

Locker-room access was limited, teams took to the ice in stages and curlers wore masks on the ice. Equipment cleaning was done between each draw.

To help with distancing, two players followed the rock down the ice but only one could sweep.

The skip in control of the house was stationed in the rings area but was not supposed to put the broom down. The other skip waited by the boards.

Frisbee-sized logos on the ice served as designated waiting areas for players when the opposing team threw stones.

"As the first event, we wanted to make sure that we got through this thing successfully," Geurts said. "At the end of the day, I would still consider what happened last weekend a very successful test drive of how to run a curling tournament in current times."

When organizers were advised of the COVID App notification on Sunday morning, they discussed the development with the remaining teams. Out of an abundance of caution, they decided to cancel the remaining men's playoff games that day.

The women's draws were held at different times than the men, so that playoff continued. Jones went on to defeat Hollie Duncan in the final.

"We learned that the work we did was valuable," Geurts said. "The reality is that I don't feel we need to make any changes going forward. Exactly what happened is what was supposed to happen. The systems that we put in place to protect ourselves caught a potential exposure."

Smaller regional bonspiels are proving to be the go-to option for elite curling teams this season. Many significant events have been postponed or cancelled, including several Grand Slam stops.

The national and world championships set for late winter and early spring remain on the calendar.

"The biggest challenge for our national team program and our more elite teams is just the fact that quite a number of them live within different provinces with different jurisdictions," said Curling Canada high-performance director Gerry Peckham. "So the whole challenge of centralizing for the purposes of training and/or competition is a very diverse landscape to navigate and it seems to be changing all the time."

Travel and quarantine rules are an obstacle for many teams. Some rinks may also be jittery about competing in provinces that have been more hard-hit on the COVID-19 front than others.

Unlike previous seasons, the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard field this year was limited to a domestic field of mostly Ontario curlers.

Geurts said a similar setup would be used for this week's competition. His goal is to set a good example for others to follow.

"We need to make sure that we show the club curlers that are going to be entering their facilities (over the coming weeks), that this is how it should be done," he said.

"This is how we can do it and this is how we can play the sport safely."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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