MISSOULA — The reason the Missoula City-County Health Department canceled the Missoula Mavericks Memorial Tournament Friday had nothing to do with sanitizing, seating, excluding anyone with coronavirus symptoms, or the ability to trace people who attended but were later diagnosed with COVID-19.
While all those things were necessary for the tournament, the crux of the cancellation involved its round-robin format, said Shannon Therriault, the Environmental Health Director of the Missoula City-County Health Department.
A May 28 order from the Missoula City-County Health Officer limits groups that can't follow social distancing to 50 people. While fans can stay the necessary 6 feet apart, players batting, running the bases, playing in the field or just sitting in the dugout would necessarily be within 6 feet of each other at various times.
“They did have a plan, so they were trying to do a number of the things that will help keep people safe,” Therriault said. “They had ideas about how to do sanitizing between the games. They were spreading the games out so that you didn’t have a bunch of people on top of each other as the games were changing.
"I don’t want to say that they weren’t doing anything. It’s just there was that very fundamental issue of too many people who were going to have close contact with each other.”
Events at or below 50 people aren’t subject to the May 28 order. Once there’s more than 50 people, all requirements in Appendix A of the order apply, including the group of 50 people that can't follow social distancing not intermingling with people outside that group during the event. A written plan is required when there’s more than 250 people, and that plan has to be approved by the Health Department when there’s more than 1,000 people, a figure which the Mavs apparently didn’t reach.
Limiting groups to the same 50 people was possible if one team, which has about 20 players and coaches, was facing only one other team, but each team at the tournament was scheduled to play five teams. It didn’t matter that two of the teams were from outside Montana; the requirement would've been the same if all the teams were from within the state.
The health department suggested having the same two teams play each other each day if the tournament wanted to continue. It was open to other ideas that the Mavs could come up with other than the round-robin format or a bracket format, but the team never presented an acceptable plan that would comply, Therriault said.
“There was a fundamental problem with the way the tournament was being set up so that it would not meet the health officer’s order to keep your groups of 50 static,” Therriault said.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s Phase 2 plan provided a directive to “avoid gathering in groups of more than 50 people in circumstances that do not readily allow for appropriate physical distancing.” Therriault said that’s a recommendation and it’s up to each county’s health department to enforce it as it sees fit. That’s why other counties — like Gallatin County, which has the most COVID-19 cases in the state — have held tournaments formatted like the one the Mavs ran.
Therriault said that number was put at 50 by the governor so that if someone at an event comes down with COVID-19, there's a manageable number of people to contact trace and quarantine.
“If you don’t put a firebreak around these large events in these groups of 50, then that becomes almost impossible and it’s just a way for the disease to take off in Missoula,” she said.
The city-county health officer and health board had discussions in May about whether to follow the governor’s recommendation. The decision to follow that came down to a couple things, Therriault said, but chief among them was to limit cases in the county, which has seen 49 confirmed cases, including 10 that are active.
“One of the reasons why we really wanted to look at something to make sure that events were going to be at least as safe as possible is because we are a medical center for all of western Montana,” Therriault said. “We don’t want our hospitals overwhelmed. It’s all about flattening the curve. We talked about that at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s still a thing. As our cases go up, we need to make sure that those cases don’t go up in a way where our medical facilities are overwhelmed.”
The health department was alerted to the tournament when it got a comment on its Facebook page around 8:30 a.m. Thursday, about 2 1/2 hours before games began. That prompted Environmental Health Specialist Alisha Johnson to reach out to the Mavs, who submitted the plan they had in place. Johnson and Mavs president Ginger Claussen also had a phone call Thursday.
The health department didn’t get a response from the Mavs about the format changing as Friday afternoon neared. The agency sent an email at 11:50 a.m. that said an order to comply would be sent if requirements weren't met, and Johnson emailed an order to cancel, written by Health Officer Ellen Leahy, at 4:18 p.m. as the sixth game was close to finishing; the Mavs claimed they didn't receive it until 4:57 p.m.
Before that was sent, the Mavs and the health department did have discussions about the steps being taken with social distancing in the stands, cleaning the park and how they were logging entrants’ names and cities, among other things. Even if those changes were made to comply, it wouldn’t have mattered until the format of the tournament was changed, Therriault said, so there wasn’t a reason to go out to the ballpark to check on any of those changes.
Regular-season games in Missoula County are still allowed for the Mavs, granted that they play just one team per day, as they have been doing with doubleheaders. There were two teams who played two different teams during the first day of the tournament, something that would've continued.
The Mavs could still end up playing several teams over the two-week incubation period for COVID-19 during non-tournament play, which raises a question: Why is it OK for them to play that many different teams in that time frame but not OK to have a tournament, which is viewed as one event instead of individual games, where they’re playing multiple teams just over a shorter period of time?
As for an answer, Therriault said, “There’s not a perfect solution.”
“These tournaments could be a lot bigger and you could have a lot more exposure than you would have in normal play when you’re doing your normal league play,” she said. “It is never really easy to figure out exactly where to draw the line. This is novel. What we didn’t want to do is just put an absolute limit on the number of people that could be at an event because we wanted to leave it open for people to come up with ideas.
“It’s complicated because there are all different ways that people play sports, all different ways that people have events. It’s not making it perfectly safe, but it’s trying to take reasonable precautions to be able to help slow down or prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s just not a normal year, and so we have to do things differently.”
Mavs manager Brent Hathaway said Friday that he felt like his team, which wasn’t allowed to host its Memorial Day Tournament in May, was being targeted. The Missoula Strikers tournament also got shut down Friday, so it’s not just the Mavs who have been impacted. Therriault noted that other tournaments seeking approval haven’t gotten it either and that Out to Lunch and River City Roots Festival were canceled because they couldn't figure out a way to keep people socially distanced or within groups of 50 people
“There’s no reason for us to target the Mavericks,” she said. “First of all, that’s not something we would do. Second of all, I don’t even understand why. I think people would feel that way because they’re seeing it from their side. But really, we’re talking to all people about tournaments here. We’re telling all sorts of different organizations that they can’t have tournaments. It just is a lot better when we can talk with them before the tournament starts.”
The Mavs launched a GoFundMe page after the tournament was canceled to raise funds to pay its bills, including a newly built indoor training facility. They've raised $1,375 of their $10,000 goal as of 7:30 p.m. Monday.
“We don’t want to put anybody at a competitive disadvantage, at a financial disadvantage," Therriault said. "The way that we see that we can do that is to be as fair and apply it as equally as possible.”
Hathaway also raised the question multiple times asking why the Farmers’ Market has been allowed to go on but the Mavs’ tournaments haven’t. The Mavs’ tournament was classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “highest risk,” which is defined as “Large, in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart, and attendees travel from outside of the local areas.”
The Farmers’ Market is applying the concept of keeping people who don’t live together 6 feet apart, limiting the number of people who can enter at a time, spreading out its vendors, having one-way traffic and cutting out activities that would bring people into close contact, such as live music. The Missoula PaddleHeads have also followed social distancing in order to host movie nights at their ballpark.
“We’re not event planners at the health department, so we want to leave it open to people to come up with creative ideas on how to make things work,” Therriault said. “How are you going to ensure there’s social distancing during the event, how are you going to ensure contact tracing or being able to identify who you were with and who might be a close contact during the event is achievable. Then you’ve got the cleaning and sanitizing and making sure that nobody who’s visibly sick is part of your event.
“Those are all of the precautions or actions that have to be taken in order to make an event as safe as you can. All of this is risky. It doesn’t take away all the risk. But it does reduce the risk.”
The question of why protests have been allowed to go on in town in recent weeks has also been raised. Those protests are less organized than a team sport, so there's not a specific organization to speak with. Therriault also noted that "people in America have an absolute right to free speech."
“I don’t think it was something that was cancelable,” she said. “We did seek out the organizers of a particular event when we knew that was going on and had a good, positive conversation with them. They canceled their event and the protests went on anyway.
"It would not have been to anybody’s benefit for us to have asked law enforcement to help in that situation. That would have been a recipe for disaster. I think a protest is just a very different thing.”
The health department did have a few options if the Mavs didn't follow the order to cancel. Those included asking for a temporary restraining order from a court, asking law enforcement to implement the order at the park or putting up a sign at the park that said the venue is closed.
"What you want is to not have to go to those extremes with use of resources," Therriault said. "So I appreciate that the Mavs took a look at the order and they made that decision and made it very quickly."