Curling in the time of COVID-19

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Manitoulin curling clubs struggle with logistics

MANITOULIN – Curling clubs on Manitoulin Island are carefully evaluating whether or not they should open this winter amid the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Assiginack Curling Club likely to remain closed for the duration of the season.

“It’s a disappointment that we won’t be helping winter to pass more quickly with curling. My wife and I enjoy it; we get out a couple of times a week and it breaks up the season nicely. It’s a disappointment but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody,” said Chris Prosser of the Assiginack Curling Club.

The Expositor contacted Assiginack’s club president Peter Bond, who said the Island clubs may re-evaluate their opening status in January.

The Little Current Curling Club is hoping to launch a season in January in line with its normal opening date.

“Our club is putting out an email this week to our membership and we’ll advertise for a few weeks in the paper. We’re seeing if we can attract 80 members to join by November 16; that’s when we’ll decide if we can go forward,” said Margot Bickell on behalf of the Little Current club.

Rinks that choose to open will modify general guidelines from Curling Canada to fit their local realities. 

“Yes, there will be some changes in the way we operate our curling centres, and many of those changes may reflect a new reality. But I truly believe our sport is well-positioned to cater to Canadians seeking that place of welcome, warmth and fun,” stated Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson in a re-opening advice document.

The national association’s advice included banning handshakes, making all participants sign a declaration or an assumption of risk waiver, marking safely distanced standing zones on the ice, implementing traffic flow guidelines, assigning players their two stones and not interchanging them, having only one sweeper, making adjacent games shoot in opposite directions and leaving an empty sheet between those in use.

Curling might be considered a higher-risk activity. It takes place in an enclosed indoor space, with people breathing heavily while sweeping and shouting during normal play. Some studies have shown COVID-19 spreads more easily in colder, drier environments, such as those found within curling rinks. 

Demographics are an important factor, too, considering the older median age on Manitoulin that tends to be most active in local curling clubs.

A single bonspiel in Edmonton this past March—with western Canadian doctors as its participants—led to at least 40 cases of COVID-19 among the 73 curlers.

“Seventy percent of club members (in Mindemoya) are over 65 years old. At 65, there’s hardly anybody that doesn’t have an underlying health issue of some kind, so I’m having a hard time seeing us opening,” said Mindemoya Curling Club representative Mark Love.

Mr. Love said his club is firmly within a wait-and-see holding pattern. The group is meeting on November 1 to discuss the possibility of their re-opening in the new year.

He added that interest is not the only deciding factor. Operating a curling rink is an expensive undertaking on its own, and a ban on traditional fundraising events like dinners means an even greater financial hit in addition to potential lower enrolment.

“Unless you’ve got $50,000 to blow, you can’t curl,” he said. “You’re down about $25,000 from losing all of the fundraising over a year, and then if you hire a caretaker it could be another $25,000 with all the hours they’d need to work to keep the club open longer to let all the members curl—we can only curl on one sheet at a time this year.”

Dave McDermid of the Providence Bay Curling Club said his group was hoping to open in the new year, far behind their usual November 1 start date. That club, along with Mindemoya and Assiginack, only has two ice sheets.

The Gore Bay Curling Club met on October 22 ahead of its usual November 1 start date. Representative Dan Marois said his club was also aiming for a tentative January launch and that his numbers have not changed much from last year.

The consensus at all Island clubs indicates that it may be too early to determine whether or not there will be any showdowns on the coloured circles this winter.

“We haven’t worked out all of the details yet because we’re not sure how much interest there will be, and there’s no sense in going forward until we get numbers,” concluded Ms. Bickell from the Little Current club.