Shortly after Canada was surprisingly eliminated from the world men’s curling championship on Friday night, the focus in the Calgary bubble switched to a deeply concerning situation that threatened the continuation of the tournament.
The World Curling Federation and Curling Canada announced that four people, from three different teams, tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday during “exit testing,” forcing the postponement of all of Saturday’s playoff games that were scheduled for the Markin MacPhail Arena at Canada Olympic Park.
All those who tested positive are asymptomatic and are feeling well. However, four other teams have been deemed to be close contacts, including some that were scheduled to still be playing Saturday.
Curling Canada said the resumption of play going forward depends on the results of testing of all athletes and officials, which was conducted throughout the day on Saturday.
“There are unknowns that we need to sort out but I am confident that it will resume,” said Dr. Bob McCormack, the chief medical officer of the Calgary curling bubble.
“I’m hopeful that, not only will we be able to finish this event — that’s a moving target — but that we’ll be able to re-establish a new bubble for the next events, that is safe.”
The positive tests involved non-playoff teams — all teams had to receive negative tests before they could return to their home countries — but the results threw the entire event into uncertainty and turmoil.
A qualification game between the United States and Switzerland was among the postponed games, along with the semifinals, which were to involve Sweden, the Russian Curling Federation and Scotland.
Everyone remaining in the bubble, including athletes, coaches, team staff, event staff and members of the broadcast crews, was tested again Saturday morning.
The WCF and Curling Canada were waiting on the results of those tests before making any further announcements.
“We have to wait for the results to come back first,” said Scott Arnold, head of development for the WCF. “They could be coming back late tonight, early (Sunday) morning. We are trying to schedule games for (Sunday), but it could be anywhere from having three draws tomorrow to trying to declare a world champion. Our chief medical officer will help us make that determination and we’ll just see how the results come back from testing today.”
Teams that received negative tests on Friday were allowed to leave the bubble and return home.
All players, team staff, event staff and broadcast crews were locked down in their hotel rooms — without food or information — as they awaited the results of tests.
“We are good, definitely ready to get on the ice whenever they tell us to get out there,” said 2018 Olympic champion John Shuster of the United States.
“We have the same information you have, which is very minimal.”
Friday’s exit testing was the first COVID-19 testing done on athletes at the world men’s championship since April 1, a day before the tournament began.
“Should there have been more testing?” Dr. McCormack said. “What I would say to that is that we had a lot of discussion with experts and also Alberta Health to come up with the protocols that we felt were safe to establish a clean bubble.
“The bottom line is the protocols were established with experts and Alberta Health, saying this is reasonable, appropriate and safe.”
The positive tests not only threatened the remainder of the world men’s championship — the fourth of seven events scheduled for the Calgary curling bubble — but also two upcoming Grand Slam of Curling events, which are slated to begin on Wednesday with the Champions Cup, and the world women’s championship, slated for April 30-May 9.
Four teams currently in the bubble are planning to stay for the Grand Slams, including team’s skipped by Canada’s Brendan Bottcher, Scotland’s Bruce Mouat, Switzerland’s Peter de Cruz and Sweden’s Niklas Edin.
Some other teams — 12 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams will compete — have already arrived in Calgary for the Grand Slams, while others were scheduled to travel this weekend, but are now in limbo.
“We’re hoping everyone is alright,” said Colin Hodgson, lead for team Mike McEwen out of Winnipeg. “Lots of guys’ anxiety is through the roof right now.”
Three-time Canadian men’s champion and 2021 mixed doubles champ Brad Gushue of Newfoundland remained in Calgary over the last two weeks in order to participate in the Grand Slams but is unsure what will happen now.
“We are hoping it is just the players they identified (Friday) night,” said Gushue, who is staying with his teammates in a rented house until the bubble re-opens for the Grand Slams. “Then they can start fresh with the Slams. But they need to increase testing protocols, especially with the virus raging outside.
“This is terrible, scary and frustrating, not knowing.”
Canada’s Bottcher and his teammates lost 5-3 to Scotland on Friday night in a qualification playoff game. Canada missed the podium at the world men’s curling championship for the first time since 2014 and then the players immediately went into lockdown.
Bottcher and third Darren Moulding have been in the bubble since the beginning of the Tim Hortons Brier in early March. They both also competed in the Canadian mixed doubles championship and are slated to take part in both Grand Slam events along with teammates Brad Thiessen and Karrick Martin.
Alberta reported 1,521 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the highest daily total reported this year. Among those cases, 674 involved variants of concern. Alberta has reported that 45.5% of its active cases involve variants.
Curling Canada’s Calgary bubble opened just before the Canadian women’s championship, which started on Feb. 19. It hosted the Canadian men’s championship from Mar. 6-14 and the Canadian mixed doubles championship from March 18-25.
Almost 1,500 COVID-19 tests were administered during those events and there were no positives.
“I’m obviously gutted,” Curling Canada events manager Nolan Thiessen said. “Friends, colleagues, teammates, our broadcast partners, I’m just completely gutted. But we’re gonna figure it out, figure out what happened and see if we can still complete the season.
“We’re assessing (how this could have happened) as we speak. We’re assessing where they had contact with hotel staff or anything else. We’re not sure … that’s part of the contact tracing process that we’re trying to figure out. Not only where the spread is but also where this could have happened.”
During a media briefing organized by Curling Canada and the World Curling Federation, Arnold was asked if there has been any talk of cancelling the remainder of the event. There is very little leeway for it to be played into next week, with the Grand Slam event starting so soon.
“No there hasn’t been talk yet of that,” Arnold said. “We are trying to get this done. We’re happy that we were able to get our six Olympic qualifiers out of the event and we’d like to finish it off too. We’re doing everything in our powers to do that but we have to wait for the testing to see if we actually have that available to us.”