The coronavirus has put the Stowe Arena on ice.
The municipal rink has shut its doors to recreational hockey leagues, and it’s unsure how much skating time the high school teams will get when their seasons start at the beginning of December.
The temporary closure came last week as part of Gov. Phil Scott’s executive orders limiting social gatherings, in response to a surge in COVID-19 infections across the state.
According to arena superintendent Tony Whitaker, the news stings because he said he and his crew worked hard to keep the arena safe and clean and screen anyone who came in.
“It was going smoothly. It was a little bit more work, but it was worth it,” Whitaker said. “We were doing so well, and I think everybody was abiding by what was asked of them.”
Whitaker said the parks and recreation department requisitioned technology that would better help clean and disinfect the arena, both the skating area and the front lobby with its uninterrupted window looking onto the ice.
He said he has two boxes of visitor information from last month, with data on which groups and individuals used the ice and when.
Referees have been supplied with hand-held electronic whistles that emit a sound similar to the ones that they blow into, but without all the spittle. Whitaker said representatives from the Vermont State Amateur Hockey Association have been by Stowe Arena during the pandemic to check on protocols, and the 7-year-old rink has gotten high marks.
“People have told me that Stowe Arena is the model arena,” he said.
One of the largest outbreaks in Vermont came in October and stemmed from a recreational hockey league that played in Montpelier at the Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center. Whitaker said he’s not aware of anyone from that league spreading COVID-19 to the Stowe Arena.
Lisa Hagerty, chair of the Stowe Selectboard, said at Monday’s meeting it appears that things are more similar to April, “rather than that seemingly calm period in the middle and toward the end of the summer.”
Kyle Walker, the town’s fire department chief and head of emergency management, said the key difference between then and now is how much more everyone knows about the virus. And businesses, schools, governments, hospitals and nonprofits have learned to adapt to the pandemic. But, Walker, said, this is a key moment, right before the holidays and the winter season, which is also flu and cold season.
“Remember, the objective here is to keep our schools and our economy open,” Walker said. “Those two things are our priority throughout the winter months, and if we’re not able to slow the spread of the virus, we face the very likely chance that our state and community will shut down, much like it did this spring. I think that's the last thing that we want.”
Selectboard member Billy Adams, who works in construction, said “very few people in the trades are wearing masks,” and he wondered how best to send a message to people who aren’t masking up or following COVID-19 guidelines.
“I think we need to because, unfortunately, we’re not in good shape right now coming into a ski season that we all need to have be successful,” Adams said. “It’s a little bit concerning that it is out of our control, obviously, but some is in our control, I’d like to think.”
Walker agreed that protocols like face coverings in the trades is “a weak point, for sure.”
“Every time I step on a job site, it’s like you just explained,” Walker said. “There’s no one wearing a mask.”
Whitaker said Stowe is community minded and hockey players and skaters “are a community within a community.” He said hockey players check themselves, calling out teammates and other skaters if their masks slip down, but do it with bonhomie.
“The way they police each other is in a very friendly and caring way, no animosity toward each other,” he said.
While much of the attention has been on whether ski resorts can pull off a successful season during a pandemic, Whitaker hopes that enough people abide by Scott’s executive orders restricting cross-border travel and social gatherings, especially this week during Thanksgiving and the next month during the rest of the holiday season.
He said skating has been a welcome respite for people, and for others, just being in the arena, masked and distant, has been a way to catch up with friends and neighbors. He likened it to the old Moscow General Store.
Whitaker is optimistic.
“We’re in a state where people are going be like, ‘oh boy, we need to get our hands around this,’” he said. “So, we need to dig in. We live in a place where people really care about their neighbors and what part they need to play with this pandemic.”