As a shortened 2020 season nears the finish, Forward Madison FC is becoming increasingly concerned about whether the team will still be prevented from playing games and conducting full practices in Madison in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The timing is important, Forward Madison co-owner and COO Conor Caloia said, because the pro soccer team wants to make decisions in early November on how it will operate next season if it knows playing at Breese Stevens Field won’t be an option.
“Forward Madison is going to play soccer next year, and right now we’re not allowed to play soccer here,” he said. “Our hope is that we can figure out a way to safely play soccer here. But ultimately, that’s not our decision.”
Current Dane County public health orders don’t allow games in medium-risk sports such as soccer and require 6 feet of distancing between individuals during practices. Because of those limitations, Forward Madison moved all of its 2020 home games to Wauwatosa, where contests are allowed with limited attendance, and conducts full-contact practices in Wisconsin Dells.
There has been no indication when the restrictions established by Public Health Madison and Dane County will loosen as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations escalate around Wisconsin.
Like businesses in other sectors that rely on in-person customers, Madison sports teams have struggled with the public health regulations as they watch others from their leagues have more success in their home markets.
The Madison Capitols junior hockey team suspended operations for the 2020-21 season because the public health order prevented it from playing at its Middleton arena. The only other United States Hockey League team not planning on playing this season backed out because its arena suffered major damage in a storm.
The Madison Mallards, who share some of the same ownership group as Forward Madison, didn’t play a summer collegiate baseball season in 2020. While six Wisconsin markets that have Northwoods League teams hosted games in a revised format, Madison joined the Eau Claire Express and Lakeshore Chinooks on the outside.
Forward Madison said it’s the only one of 70 active men’s pro soccer teams in the U.S. that isn’t allowed to practice in its home market. Only Albuquerque, New Mexico, also prevents games from being played.
University of Wisconsin teams are allowed to play in Madison because campus lands aren’t subject to Dane County public health orders.
Caloia argued that sports businesses in Madison face a higher level of public health pandemic regulation than for other sectors.
“Concert venues, bars, restaurants and other indoor businesses that have nationally been tied to spreading the virus are allowed to open but we can’t, even though we have thoroughly proven that the virus doesn’t spread through the playing of soccer,” he said.
Public Health Madison and Dane County spokeswoman Sarah Mattes said the current public health order doesn’t allow for indoor bar service and concert venues are treated as a mass gathering with limits of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
With an elevated level of COVID-19 case counts recently, Mattes said it’s hard to pinpoint what will need to happen to allow Forward Madison to play at home next year.
“I can’t speak to the decision-making process of other jurisdictions, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic and bringing people together in activities that require close contact, physical exertion and large numbers increase the likelihood of spreading COVID-19,” Mattes said in an email.
“CDC states that the highest level of risk related to sports is competitions between teams of different geographic regions which would be the case for Forward Madison games at Breese Stevens.”
USL League One includes Forward Madison and teams from nine other states. An entry from Toronto is not playing this season because of travel restrictions in the pandemic.
The league has reported 38 positive tests from more than 5,600 given between June 30 and Sept. 28 but does not disclose names, team affiliation or the severity of the illness.
A USL spokesperson said the overwhelming majority of positive cases in its testing have been traced to off-field activities. The league published a 51-page set of protocols for the season that covers testing frequency, precautions during travel and the requirement for players and staff members to stay at home except for essential functions or team activities.
“One of the things that has been made clear to us during our consultation with public health experts is that the risk of COVID-19 is significantly higher in the course of more mundane life activities — things like trips to the grocery store, getting a haircut, eating at a restaurant, etc. — than in environments where USL’s health and wellness protocols are being upheld properly,” a league statement said. “In the overall risk assessment, the team environments — including training and matches themselves — are relatively secure and controlled because players and staff are going well above and beyond in terms of protective measures.”
Mattes said sports teams have joined other businesses in asking for exceptions to Dane County’s public health rules. Caloia said Forward Madison hasn’t been successful in scheduling a meeting with the public health agency leadership to discuss a plan.
He said the team’s first priority is to return to play and practice safely in Madison.
“But then second, discuss how we can have fans back at Breese Stevens Field, even if that’s a reduced-capacity, mask-required, safe environment like we’ve proven we can do other places,” Caloia said. “I think that’s the ideal. And honestly, I think that’s the ideal for the community, too.”
Wauwatosa Health Department director Laura Conklin said that it’s difficult to give a definitive answer on transmission at events but there have been no documented coronavirus outbreaks related to the Forward Madison games that have been played at Hart Park.
Forward Madison’s sibling baseball teams under the Big Top Sports and Entertainment organization played this summer in Ashwaubenon and Kenosha. Brown County public health strategist Claire Paprocki said there were no known COVID-19 outbreaks traced back to Green Bay Booyah games.
In Kenosha County, environmental health manager Mark Melotik couldn’t say whether there was any infection related to baseball games there.
The financial impact of the pandemic on Forward Madison in its second year of competition has been “catastrophic,” Caloia said.
The team will spend between $80,000 and $90,000 on relocation this season, he said. That includes rentals for Hart Park in Wauwatosa and a practice field in Wisconsin Dells, player travel to those sites and moving team equipment.
It also is spending $3,500 a week on COVID-19 testing for players and staff members under USL League One protocols, Caloia said.
Attendance for six home games in Wauwatosa so far has numbered in the hundreds compared to the top-ranked average of 4,292 for 14 league games at Breese Stevens Field last year.
If Madison is out of the picture for Forward Madison in the 2021 season, Caloia said the team again will look for another venue to temporarily call home but then set up its staff there to try to build a viable operation.
He said the team has no interest in a permanent move away from Madison but doesn’t know how long it will be shut out of playing at home.
“Obviously, our hope is to figure out how we can do it here in Madison,” he said. “All of our effort, all of our focus is trying to figure out a way with the health department that they’ll allow us to return to Breese Stevens Field and hopefully do it in a manner that’s safe.”
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