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Investigation goes behind the scenes of lead-up to Sounders’ last match

ProPublica and the Seattle Times get access to emails which show some of the internal debates that went on.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

For anyone who attended the Seattle Sounders’ match on March 7, they’ll likely remember the eery scene that accompanied it. While the action of the field felt normal, much of the circumstances around it were anything but.

With warnings from public health officials dominating the news cycle in the days leading up to the match — and other events being canceled — the Sounders had urged anyone with underlying conditions or considered to be part of the most at-risk groups to stay away. To help facilitate that, the team extended right up to gametime their offer to exchange tickets for the March 7 game for a match later in the season.

What the Sounders didn’t do was cancel the game, despite calls from many within the fanbase to do so. An investigation by ProPublica and the Seattle Times sheds some light on the decision-making process that led to that outcome.

The announced crowd of 33,080 was the smallest that had come to CenturyLink Field for a MLS match since the inaugural season in 2009. Still, that was the largest public event in King County since a state of emergency had been declared a little more than a week earlier, when it had become apparent that there was a coronavirus outbreak.

In the days leading up to the match, it had also been revealed that a concession worker at the Seattle Dragons game on Feb. 22 had tested positive for COVID-19. The discussion around how to message that test dominates the early parts of the ProPublica/Times story. A U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention expert had apparently advised that the situation posed a low risk to the public. Although the CDC now believes people can pass along the disease without showing symptoms, at the time the advice followed its official guidance.

The emails suggest the Sounders originally wanted to avoid mentioning the vendor’s positive COVID-19 test, but that they changed tact after a Times reporter inquired about the vendor before news of the test result had been shared with the public.

The latter part of the story mostly focuses on the debate surrounding whether or not to cancel all large events. While Emerald City Comic Con was apparently initially buoyed by the Sounders moving forward with their match and initially resisted calls to move their event, scheduled to begin on March 12, they decided on March 6 to postpone.

Around the same time, public officials were ratcheting up calls to cancel events. At one point the head of Seattle/King County Public Health — Jeffrey Duchin — told a colleague in an email that “I want to cancel large group gatherings now.” That message apparently didn’t reach County Executive Dow Constantine or the Sounders prior to the March 7 game.

In a more recent post on the King County Health website, Duchin said this about the decision to go ahead with the match: “Based on the number of cases in the community at that time, we believed that holding the Sounders match on March 7th did not present a significant threat and would not change the overall course of the outbreak, and therefore didn’t warrant an immediate closure order before the plan to close all large gatherings the following week. Attendance at the match on March 7th was less than normal, presumably because of our recommendations issued on March 4th for people at highest risk to avoid public gatherings, and our general warnings that the risk of infection in the community was increasing.”

Immediately following the match, the Sounders expressed pride in holding the event despite the circumstances. To the degree that the match felt safe, the pride was well deserved.

But there was also a sense that it would be hard to know how to feel about the event until weeks later. Even nearly six weeks later, it’s still hard to know. In the ProPublica/Times article, Duchin acknowledges that it’s likely at least some people who attended the match had coronavirus — he estimates “as low as five to 40” — while noting “there’s no way we would be able to know” if anyone was infected at the game.

Even absent evidence of a “biological bomb” being set off, it’s still easy enough with the benefit of hindsight to suggest that going forward with the March 7 match exposed thousands of people to an unnecessary risk. The sports world — and much of the rest of the world — has been effectively shut down since then with signs of re-opening only now starting to emerge.

At the same time, I’m not sure there’s anything in this investigation that reveals any particular missteps. By all appearances, the Sounders acted in good faith and on the advice of public officials given what was known at the time.

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