The Baker administration is preparing new regulations that will force Massachusetts youth hockey teams to help health experts track potential COVID-19 outbreaks, a step prompted by several teams and coaches obstructing the contact-tracing process in recent weeks, officials said Tuesday.
Indoor ice rinks must remain closed through at least Nov. 7 under a Department of Public Health order issued last week after state health regulators linked more than 100 cases of the highly infectious coronavirus to ice hockey.
During a Tuesday press conference, Gov. Charlie Baker and his health chief said their decision was prompted not only by the multiple clusters but also because some adults and coaches stymied the state's attempts to get a grasp of how far transmission spread.
"There were a number of instances where the team would not hand over the rosters of players, so you didn't even know who was playing for us to make the contact, or coaches in a couple of instances telling families and the players to not respond to the contact tracers," Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told reporters. "Not sharing the rosters so that you can't make the phone calls is, for us, not acceptable."
Neither Baker nor Sudders identified any specific teams that refused to provide information about its players and who might have had contact with COVID-positive individuals.
On several other occasions, team leaders told players that if they were under quarantine, they could not play for their regular team but could play for other teams — a system that is "obviously not quarantine," Sudders said.
"There were a number of instances where the team would not hand over the rosters of players, so you didn't even know who was playing for us to make the contact, or coaches in a couple of instances telling families and the players to not respond to the contact tracers."Mary Lou Sudders
A DPH investigation identified more than 30 COVID clusters linked to youth hockey, Baker said, with at least 110 confirmed cases and 22 more probable cases spread across at least 66 cities and towns.
Those numbers are likely "undercounted," Baker said, "due to the lack of cooperation" that met investigators.
Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce, whose organization is a local affiliate of USA Hockey, told the News Service that his group did not have any direct contact with the administration before last week's shutdown order and is hoping to "get a further detailed understanding of the concerns raised."
"We will continue to work with the state to assist the contact tracing process and we encourage and expect that people will work with those responsible for contact tracing to do what is necessary to limit the spread of Covid-19," Joyce wrote in an email. "As noted above, we did not have direct contact with the administration prior to the shutdown and were unaware of any instances (of) coaches telling players that they could play for a different team while quarantining."
"We do not support the obstruction of contact tracing and believe that families, programs and facilities all need to work together to facilitate the process," Joyce added.
Sudders said the administration is preparing "strengthened guidances" that will mandate compliance with contact tracing efforts, including a clear requirement that teams must share rosters.
While she did not outline significant details about the new regulations, Sudders said they will communicate "the expectation that if there's not cooperation, we would close down the rink or the team."
Asked if the in-development guidelines would apply to any sports or organizations beyond hockey, a DPH spokesperson declined to comment.
College and professional hockey and skating programs were exempt from DPH's rink shutdown order.
Massachusetts is not alone in implementing a pause on indoor ice rinks and ice skating facilities. New Hampshire and other states have also imposed similar restrictions.
"I know the shutdown wasn't welcome news," Baker said Tuesday. "Anybody who saw my social network page knows that. But youth hockey needs to make some changes and we look forward to working with them to create the kind of framework that will be safe for kids and for parents."
While Baker said the evidence has not provided a firm answer, he said it is likely that COVID transmission at ice rinks occurs due to "irresponsible behavior" from parents and coaches in particular, such as gathering in close quarters, rather than from the play of hockey itself.
Joyce said Massachusetts Hockey has not been granted access to state data about cases and described it as "presumptuous" to make any decisions imminently. However, he said the organization expects families to comply with existing state guidelines on safe social interaction during the pandemic.
State officials will work with hockey organizers to minimize the risks while the pause is in place, and Joyce said his group is "committed to work with state officials to understand what we can collectively do to ensure that hockey does not experience a pause like this again in the future."