Montgomery Co. cancels national boys soccer tournament this weekend over COVID-19 concerns

Just days before the boys Bethesda Premier Cup soccer tournament was to start at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Montgomery County has rescinded its approval for the event.

The boys tournament, which drew local teams as well as some from states including Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania, was to start Friday and run through Sunday.

County health officials said a case of COVID-19 had been detected during the previous week’s girls tournament, which ran at the same complex from Nov. 13-15.

At a media briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, alluded to the fact that the coronavirus was to blame, telling reporters that a suspected case of COVID-19 had been discovered and, “It was someone who should not have done what they did.”

Stoddard declined to give further details.

But Matt Libber, executive director of the Maryland SoccerPlex, said that a player on one of the participating teams “was symptomatic” for COVID-19.

“We actually sent that team home,” said Libber. He said the opposing team in that match was also sent home. “So we handled it within the protocol that we had designed and that the county had approved.”

By Libber’s calculation, as many as 8,500 people — players, coaches and parents — would have attended the three day event starting Friday.

Libber was asked how he felt when he got the call saying the approval had been rescinded.

“Frustration, but understanding,” said Libber. “We’re nine months into this pandemic. Everyone knows this is always a possibility,” he said, referring to cancellations.

In a media call Wednesday, when Stoddard mentioned the approval had been pulled, he said that he wanted to make one thing clear: The organizers could not be faulted for the situation or the cancellation of the tournament.

“Their plan was very robust, and they made every reasonable effort they could to make that tournament as safe as possible,” Stoddard said.

Libber explained there were a number of precautions that had been spelled out long before the tournament.

“Any person that set foot on the campus had to be wearing a mask,” said Libber.

That included parents, coaches, and staff. The only exception was players that were actually on the field taking part in an ongoing game.

Marks were made on the field where spectators could stand.

“So we took the guessing of socially distancing out of the equation,” Libber said, pointing out that players could only have one spectator present for their games. “So if it was mom, dad and a sibling coming, it could only be mom or dad,” actually attending a game.

Libber said they didn’t find any pushback on the mask mandate. Typically, if someone didn’t have a mask on fully, it was because it had slipped, or a player who had just come off the field momentarily forgot to put their mask on.

And there were measures taken to deal with cross-contamination: No team was allowed on a field of play until after both teams in a previous game left and the field was vacant.

Libber said his issue, and perhaps the greatest source of his frustration, was the timing of the call to cancel the tournament.

“It was 36 hours before the tournament was supposed to start that we’re getting notification from the county,” he said.

Libber said he got an email notifying him that he’d have to cancel on Wednesday morning, shortly before the briefing that health officials had with reporters.

Libber has been vocal in his opposition to restrictions on sports. Over the summer, he lobbied the county council and health officials to recategorize soccer as a medium-risk sport versus a high-risk sport.

A continuing source of frustration, said Libber, is that health officials said family and social gatherings, along with attendance at restaurants, appear to be a growing source of COVID-19 cases.

“But we’re not stopping any of them. … They’re all still going on. Restaurants are still open,” said Libber.

Montgomery County has enacted restrictions to limit gatherings to 25 people. Retail outlets, restaurants and religious facilities are restricted to 25% of capacity.

Libber said keeping athletic outlets available to young people is increasingly important as the restrictions in other areas continue.

“If we don’t find a solution to get these kids active, and social activities where they can talk with their friends, we’re looking at a second crisis when we look at the mental health impacts of this,” said Libber.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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