With COVID-19 Surging in Arizona, Phoenix Hosts Massive Soccer Tournament

With COVID-19 Surging in Arizona, Phoenix Hosts Massive Soccer Tournament
Scott Calleja via Flickr
New COVID-19 cases are surging in Arizona with no end in sight, and public health officials are bracing for Thanksgiving-related travel and gatherings to cause more outbreaks. Just last week, mayors from across the state, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, called on Governor Doug Ducey to impose a statewide mask mandate.

Despite the crisis-level circumstances, the city of Phoenix has decided to host a massive soccer tournament over the holiday weekend.

A total of 500 teams will be gathering for the Desert Soccer Cup Tournament to play at city-owned sports facilities in Phoenix, a decision that has been criticized by local politicians and elected officials alike as dangerous and tone-deaf.

In a memo dated November 23 directed to Phoenix City Manger Ed Zuercher, Acting Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department Director Tracee Hall detailed the plans for the tournament. It will be held between November 27 and 29, and an estimated 300 teams will play at the Reach 11 Sports Complex while another 200 teams will be hosted at the Rose Mofford Sports Complex. Of the total 500 teams, "460 are from out of state," the memo states. (Facilities in Scottsdale and Mesa will also host games, according to the memo.) Rated Sports, an event management and sports marketing company, reserved the facilities.

"It’s a tournament that’s being held at multiple facilities throughout the Valley," said Gregg Bach, a spokesperson for the Parks and Recreation Department.

The document also details various protocols that the event's organizers must follow to help guard against the spread of COVID-19. Mask wearing will be mandatory for players, spectators, officials and coaches, physical distancing is "encouraged," six feet of space will be "maintained between the sports field and spectator area," and teams must "commit" to informing players and coaches of the guidelines.

Additionally, the cup's organizers will also have to submit a "COVID safety plan," which will include hand-sanitizing stations, masks for those who need them, a "self-temperature check" for coaches and players prior to entering a facility, extra police officers for "monitoring" safety, and asking attendees who don't follow the guidelines to "leave or sit in their vehicles." City staff, Phoenix Park Rangers, and Phoenix Police Department personnel will also be present to "ensure safety protocols are being followed."

Bach confirmed that no restrictions have been placed on the number of spectators who can attend the games.

In anticipation of media scrutiny, the memo featured a public statement about the tournament's "safety measures."

"The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department is dedicated to ensuring that our community is protected to the highest extent possible from the risk of COVID-19," the memo states.

The tournament plans quickly drew criticism from some high-profile local players, citing Arizona's surging COVID-19 cases and evidence that large sporting events, even if held outdoors, can contribute to the spread of the virus. Arizona State University researchers and Maricopa County public health officials recently identified club sporting events as the source of local COVID-19 outbreaks, as 12 News recently reported.

Democratic Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema tweeted today that the event should be postponed.

"COVID cases are on the rise, threatening lives, our health care system, and economy. @CDCgov warns Thanksgiving travel is dangerous, and scientists - including at @ASU - say sports tournaments are super-spreaders," she wrote. "Events like these are dangerous and shouldn't happen right now."

In a statement issued on Monday, November 23, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, a Democrat who represents District 5, emphasized the public health risks posed by sports events and called for a 30-day "timeout."

"During the past week, I became aware the Maricopa County Department of Public Health has tracked outbreaks related to youth sports tournaments of various kinds and informed ADHS," Gallardo said. "A cursory search of the internet confirmed multiple events, often hosting hundreds of teams from different states, are scheduled in Maricopa County through December... Some are being hosted at public facilities in cities, towns and school districts. They control access to many parks and gyms. I believe it is time for these events to take a 30 day 'timeout.'"

"This past weekend I witnessed several of these sporting events that included both adults and youth in attendance with very few of them complying with our mask mandate," Gallardo added.

Meanwhile, Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, slammed the soccer tournament plans, calling it "tone deaf and foolish."

"If the plan they submitted was actually followed with good adherence, that would be one thing, but everyone in the world knows that it’s BS," Humble told New Times. "It’s flat-out irresponsible right now, given where we are, probably three weeks away from the hospital crisis. There’s going to be outbreaks and amplification of the virus as a result, and I think the city probably knows that."

When asked repeatedly about the public health risks of such an event, Bach refused to comment, referring New Times back to the city's statement. Rated Sports, the company that reportedly reserved the facilities for the tournament, did not respond to requests for comment. Shelly Jamison, a spokesperson for Phoenix City Manger Ed Zuercher, referred New Times back to Bach. Bach eventually stopped returning New Times' calls and only responded by email.

In a statement provided to New Times, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego acknowledged Arizona's rapidly worsening COVID-19 trends but declined to join other elected officials in calling for the event to be postponed.

“I am gravely concerned about COVID-19 in our community. With infections now at the second-highest daily number ever, it is clear the status quo is not working. We all need to be aware that the public health situation has changed dramatically in the last few weeks," she said. "It is critically important that teams participating in this weekend’s tournaments follow the extensive restrictions the city has put in place.”

There's also the question of how much money the city will potentially make by hosting this tournament. In an email, Bach provided the fee rates charged for various services at the sports facilities in question. Hourly soccer field fees with lighting at the Rose Mofford Sports Complex are $25 for youth events and $35 for adult events, while vendors are charged a flat $100 for a full-day in the concessions building.

Bach couldn't provide a figure for how much the city projected that it would earn off the tournament: "Once the tournament is completed, we’ll be able to provide the total amount the organizer paid, based on their usage this week," he wrote in an email.

(Note: The story was updated after publication with a quote from Mayor Kate Gallego.)
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Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety