The Mills administration sent a strongly worded letter to the president of Maine Amateur Hockey Association on Friday, suggesting that there could be consequences if the group fails to follow state guidelines that do not allow for games to be played indoors.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew: “We will not hesitate to harden what had been strong recommendations into stringent requirements.”  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The hockey association has come under scrutiny after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that a referee who tested positive for COVID-19 had potentially exposed 400 people to the coronavirus while officiating eight games in Maine and New Hampshire last weekend.

The letter signed by Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, says that the state has relied on education to encourage compliance with Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders, but will enforce its community sports guidelines to protect the public health if needed, noting that violation of an executive order is a Class E crime punishable by a fine of up to $10,000.

Youth sports officials, however, have been frustrated by what they say is a lack of clarity in the state’s community sports guidelines, which make recommendations – against playing indoor games, for example – but do not prohibit activities outright. As a result, ice hockey leagues, as well as travel or club basketball programs, have been playing games inside throughout Maine for weeks. Some officials said they have received little or no guidance after reaching out to state officials regarding whether they could play games.

Mike Keaney, the president of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, said he contacted state officials in August but never got a response. Its hockey programs have been following return-to-play guidelines established by U.S.A. Hockey, he said. The hockey association oversees about 20 organizations, at both the youth and adult level, from Presque Isle to Biddeford.

“What I do know is that a number of rinks have reached out to the state asking about what they can and can’t do,” he said. “The state has not told them they can’t do anything. My understanding is (the community sports guidelines) are recommendations.”

Lawbrew tried to clear up any confusion in her letter to Keaney on Friday.

“Our approach to enforcement of executive orders and guidance during the coronavirus pandemic has been to begin with education and encourage voluntary compliance,” the letter says. “This approach has been largely successful because organizers of activities share the same goal as the State: ensuring public health as we reopen activities.

“That said, if non-compliance persists and spread of COVID-19 through community sports appears to be occurring, we will not hesitate to harden what had been strong recommendations into stringent requirements and take all reasonable and practicable action to enforce them to protect the health and safety of Maine people.”

The letter went on to say that failure to comply could result in being charged with “a Class E crime punishable by a fine up to $10,000, as well as restitution to the State.”

In conclusion, the letter said, “We do not take these measures lightly, but we are committed to protecting Maine people from the spread of this deadly virus and the substantial consequences that its continued spread could have on the health of Maine people, the health of Maine’s economy and the health of our state’s future.”

Keaney said he has shared the letter with his group’s board of directors and U.S.A. Hockey. “We’re in the process of reviewing the letter and we will instruct our members appropriately once we get feedback to determine what to do,” he said. “I don’t have anything further to say right now.”

The letter stops short of making demands of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association. Twice it uses the word recommend or recommendation when talking about the community sports guidelines, and does not expressly state that indoor hockey games cannot be played.

After receiving a copy of the letter sent to Keaney, the Portland Press Herald did not receive a response from the state Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Health and Human Services asking for clarification about whether the community sports guidelines are recommendations or regulations.

Meanwhile, indoor games continue to be played in Maine.

Lenny Holmes, the owner/organizer of Maine Hoops, said his program holds basketball games at several sites, including XL Sports World in Saco, each weekend. He said he contacted state officials with his plan to make sure he was following the guidelines. He said the only response he got “basically said the community sports guidelines are what you should reference.”

Holmes divides players registered in his program into cohorts of three teams. The teams can only play games within their cohort. After three weeks, Holmes establishes new cohorts and those teams again play within their group. Players are from York and Cumberland counties. The games do not involve any out-of-program teams.

“They only play within their cohorts,” Holmes said. “They come, play a couple of games and leave and then the next cohorts come in to play. If anything happens, everyone has been registered with us so we have their information and contact tracing is in place.”

After hearing news of the ice hockey official’s situation, Holmes said he has decided to assign one referee to each cohort as well.

Brian Clement, a co-founder of the Maine Firecrackers girls’ basketball program, said he was unaware that indoor games were not allowed under the community sports guidelines. “I would say that is not a very well-known thing,” he said.

However, after learning of the guidelines, Clement said his organization decided that “no teams are to play until we have the opportunity to research and understand the rules recently established.”

Shari Levesque, the executive director of Soccer Maine, said it took “months of badgering” state officials to determine whether the 53 clubs servicing as many as 11,500 youth soccer players in Maine would be able to play this fall.

Soccer, like ice hockey and basketball, is considered a moderate risk sport, so it can play outdoor games between teams from the same geographic area. She said about 340 town-based teams are currently playing games. Unlike most years, travel is significantly restricted and there will be no state playoffs.

Soccer Maine is treating the community sports guidelines as regulations, rather than recommendations, Levesque said.

“In looking at it from a liability standpoint and an insurance standpoint, we look at it as regulation,” Levesque said. “We don’t want to do anything in conflict and we’ve been told by our insurance that were we doing things in conflict, our insurance would potentially not cover that.”

Soccer Maine is under the auspices of the national US Youth Soccer organization. Levesque said she has been in weekly Zoom meetings with peers from New England and across the country. Many states quickly established a sports task force, with representation from athletic organizations, to establish guidelines and rules for participation during the pandemic, Levesque said.

“The fact that (Maine) did not do a sports task force to focus and provide valid information from sports organizations to the public health groups was a fall down by the state,” Levesque said.

Levesque cautioned that athletic organizations might not like it if the state decides to take a more active, and possibly restrictive, role.

“If I say I want the guidelines to be more direct and clear that could hurt all of us. There could be things working really well right now that they might not allow. On the one hand, I appreciate the flexibility in their policies, but they’re taking too long to get the policies out.”

In light of teams having to quarantine after the hockey referee tested positive, the head of one private school questions whether it will continue to host hockey games.

Seven of the eight games officiated by the referee took place in Maine. Six were at Biddeford Ice Arena and one multi-hour session with adult players took place at North Yarmouth Academy.

Ben Jackson, the head of school at NYA, said the school’s hockey rink has been rented to multiple outside organizations since it reopened in July.

All people entering the rink are screened for signs of COVID-19 infection, Jackson said, including temperature checks. He said that included the referee in question. The locker rooms are closed. Players must come ready to play and wear masks when not actively skating. Deep cleaning is done between each session.

Jackson said the rink operations were following CDC safety guidelines and were not trying to hide that activities, including hockey games, were being held. He also felt there has been a lack of clarity from the state, prior to Thursday, about what was allowable.

“You can now make the case that these games should not be permitted until CDC guidelines are changed,” Jackson said.

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