Health Officials Recommended Canceling Events with 10-50 People. Then 33,000 Fans Attended a Major League Soccer Game.

A crew works on a banner featuring Seattle Sounders MLS soccer players outside of CenturyLink Field on March 11, 2020, in Seattle.

A crew works on a banner featuring Seattle Sounders MLS soccer players outside of CenturyLink Field on March 11, 2020, in Seattle. AP Photo

 

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As COVID-19 fears grew, public officials and sports execs contemplated health risks—and debated a PR message—but let 33,000 fans into a Seattle Sounders soccer match, emails show.

On March 6, at 2:43 p.m., the health officer for Public Health—Seattle & King County, the hardest-hit region in the first state to be slammed by COVID-19, sent an email to a half-dozen colleagues, saying, “I want to cancel large group gatherings now.”

The county’s numbers—10 known deaths and nearly 60 confirmed cases as of late morning—were bad and getting worse. Many local events had already been called off for fear of spreading the coronavirus. Oyster Fest. The Puget Sound Puppetry Festival. A Women’s Day speaker series at the Gates Foundation. King County had ordered a stop to in-person government meetings unless they were considered essential.

The health officer, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, was to the Seattle area what Anthony Fauci would become for the country, the doctor at the microphone, dispensing guidance. Under Washington law, Duchin also had authority to make his wish an order.

Duchin sent his email 28 hours before the Seattle Sounders, defending MLS champions and one of the league’s biggest draws, were to host a match at CenturyLink Field. No event in the coming days would generate a gathering to compare. The game would draw people from across the Puget Sound area, and maybe beyond.

In the end, the match went on. Two days after the public health department wrote on Facebook, “We are making a recommendation to postpone or cancel events greater than 10-50 people,” officials in King County allowed a soccer match to be held with 33,000 fans, squeezed together.

How that happened is captured in hundreds of pages of emails exchanged among federal, state and local officials, as well as executives from the Sounders, Seahawks, Mariners and XFL Dragons. Those records, obtained by ProPublica and The Seattle Times, show how one meeting would beget another, one email would beget a dozen more, all while the virus was taking rapid hold.

When it was learned before the Sounders match that a concessions vendor at a recent XFL game at CenturyLink had tested positive, days passed before the public was notified. Even then, the press release went out only after a reporter who had caught a tip called to inquire.

“Once the public learns of a confirmed case inside the venue, my counsel is that we’ll need every positive talking point we can get,” the Sounders senior vice president for communications wrote in one email thread.

The records show how county officials struggled to send the public a clear, consistent message. They also reflect the extolling of sport, even in a time of contagion. In one email sent to the county officials after the match, a Sounders executive lauded the power of Sounders matches to provide “catharsis and community.”

Reporters made interview requests for this story to five Sounders executives and two Seahawks officials who also work with the company that operates CenturyLink Field. All seven either didn’t respond or declined to be interviewed.

For Duchin, this first week of March presented all kinds of challenges: trying to figure out where King County was on the epidemic curve while working with little testing and a limited understanding of how the virus was transmitted.

“In my career as a public health person, this has been the most both unprecedented and stressful event I’ve ever lived through,” Duchin said in a recent interview. “There was so much changing so rapidly. Every aspect of this was challenging us beyond our capacity. … Every element of this response was fraught with uncertainty.”

In Italy, a Feb. 19 soccer match, later dubbed “Game Zero” and described by a respiratory specialist as a “biological bomb,” has been cited as a possible reason that one province became an epicenter of the pandemic.

But that match was played before the country’s first confirmed case of locally transmitted COVID-19. In Washington, community spread had been recognized at least a week before the Sounders match. The governor declared a state of emergency on Feb. 29, the King County executive on March 1.

On the evening of March 7, a Saturday, hundreds gathered in Occidental Park for their traditional March to the Match. They stood shoulder to shoulder and marched three blocks down Occidental Avenue to CenturyLink Field.

Fans, tens of thousands of them, streamed into the stadium, using, if they wished, extra hand-sanitizing stations scattered about the concourses. The fans waved scarves, as they always do. The lower bowl stood for most of the match, as it always does. The crowd, in blue and green, chanted and cheered. In the 12th minute, they sang Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia.” Everyone was mere inches apart.

When the Sounders scored in the 53rd minute, friends hugged. Neighbors high-fived. When the goal was disallowed moments later, disappointment reigned. But the Sounders scored again, late in the match, to salvage a draw. More hugs, chest to chest, more high-fives, skin on skin.

'Emphasize Risk to Attendees Is Very Low'

With communicable disease, timely information can be critical. But in King County, there was little urgency in alerting the public to an infected concessions worker at the stadium where the Sounders game was to be played.

On March 2, the public health department learned of a positive COVID-19 case and began researching past contacts. The next day, the investigators linked the case to CenturyLink Field: The infected person had been a concessions vendor at a Feb. 22 XFL game for the Seattle Dragons.

On March 3, King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office privately coordinated with a Seahawks and CenturyLink Field executive about the vendor.

A call was set for the next morning. But a public announcement about the positive test wouldn’t come that night or after the next morning’s phone call. In fact, it wouldn’t come for nearly two days.

Instead, an internal XFL announcement to the league’s members and a press release from the county would be passed around among at least 35 public health officials, county employees, and executives for the Sounders, Dragons, the NFL’s Seahawks and Major League Baseball’s Mariners. The Seahawks also play in CenturyLink, while the Mariners were set to play in three weeks. There were at least 65 emails about how to handle the announcement and at least a half dozen drafts of the press release.

On the evening of March 4, James Apa, a public health spokesman, received an early version of what the XFL planned to tell its teams and employees about the stadium worker.

Apa quickly forwarded the press release to King County’s public health leadership, asking for comments. Duchin passed it along to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its input. “[I]t will go national and probably get media attention,” Duchin wrote.

A CDC expert responded 12 minutes later, advising, “They should emphasize risk to attendees is very low.” Benjamin Haynes, a CDC spokesman, seconded that in another email: “emphasize risk to attendees is very low.”

Haynes said in a recent interview that a CDC team had been summoned to Seattle that week to help local public health officials. They were told the concessions vendor worked at a beer stand and had been asymptomatic. The assessment of “very low” risk, Haynes said, was based on the vendor’s absence of symptoms and the CDC’s belief at the time that transmission occurred mostly through prolonged contact.

The CDC now says the virus may be spread by people before they show symptoms. (There were also early reports at the time that the virus could be spread by asymptomatic people.)

“It’s important not to compare what we know today to what was sent in an email on March 4,” Haynes said.

Duchin said he would still characterize the risk to the game’s attendees from that vendor as “very low,” based on the vendor’s lack of close contact with the public. “Not zero. Not zero. And there’s no precise way of characterizing risk,” he said.

The night of the 4th, the XFL swapped in a shorter draft that dropped any mention of risk levels. The Seahawks complained to county and public health officials that the XFL had moved to a “hysteria inducing statement,” while Apa wrote that this new statement “would seem to create more unwarranted concern.”

Apa, in a recent interview, said the public health department’s investigation “found only four staff members who had close contact” with the vendor. The short statement sent out by the XFL “could be misinterpreted as the case posing more than minimal risk to attendees, which wasn’t true based on our investigation and CDC guidance,” Apa said. The county public health department decided to prepare its own statement “to set the record straight.”

The morning of March 5, the Sounders shared with other officials the team’s own proposed press release announcing that its March 7 match would be played. It cited “our network of medical experts” who had advised “that risk to the general public remains low,” and it avoided any mention of the vendor’s positive COVID-19 test.

In her email to the others, the Sounders’ senior vice president of external affairs explained that the team didn’t plan to publicly release any information about the vendor, leaving the issue “to be coordinated” with stadium officials.

“A prepared statement is below, which is for specific use in the event this incident breaks into the public sphere,” she wrote.

That same morning, a Seattle Times reporter, working on a tip, called the county public health department’s media office asking for information about the vendor’s positive test.

Nothing had yet been said publicly, so the reporter’s call triggered, over the next three hours, a cascade of edits to the statement that the county was preparing.

“Recognizing the urgency, we’d like to send this by 3pm,” Constantine’s office wrote in an email to the Dragons, Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders.

The XFL, a fledgling football league created by pro wrestling chief Vince McMahon, pushed for straightforward, direct disclosure.

A preliminary version of the county’s press release said that the risk to fans who attended the Dragons’ Feb. 22 game was low, and that risk to fans at upcoming sporting events was low. The second part was deleted less than an hour before posting. “We’ve moved away from saying the risk is low,” Apa explained in an email to Constantine’s staff.

The Sounders wanted a statement that said all of the teams’ and leagues’ medical staffs were “in continuous dialogue” with public health officials.

“I believe that message of cohesion does a lot for public confidence,” wrote Alex Caulfield, the Sounders senior vice president of communications.

The XFL disagreed. “We think that statement is awkward,” wrote league President Jeffrey Pollack, a former NBA, NASCAR and World Series of Poker executive. “It suggests that the leagues’ medical experts are advising on this matter.”

The back and forth continued until moments before the press release went out.

“I would argue that the more robust the overall medical apparatus appears, the better it is for public confidence,” Caulfield responded. “Once the public learns of a confirmed case inside the venue, my counsel is that we’ll need every positive talking point we can get.”

Pollack replied: “Creating the appearance of any sort of ‘overall medical apparatus’ is not our concern. This is about the factual disclosure of something that was known to some, but not others, four days ago. This statement should be as straightforward, plain-spoken, and factual as possible, in our humble opinion.”

The sports teams didn’t want their brands tied to the positive test any more than necessary.

“No desire to use our logos,” a Seahawks executive wrote. “I think it works best from our perspective to go out on King County letterhead,” the Mariners wrote.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Apa emailed a statement to a Times reporter and the county posted the release on its website a few minutes later.

The county’s release wound up being an amalgam of messages on its letterhead: a stadium worker had tested positive; professional sporting events in Seattle would continue; but the risk of COVID-19 infection was rising, so people at higher risk should stay away.

This same day, the county’s public health department stopped trying to track every past contact for every person who tested positive for COVID-19. The coronavirus was already too widespread.

Based on modeling and area population, Duchin said, a “handful” of people with the virus probably attended the match: “In that entire stadium of 33,000 people, as low as five to 40, if you just do some back-of-the-envelope … calculations.”

There’s no saying how many people who attended the match later tested positive.

“No,” Duchin said, “there’s no way we would be able to know that.”

'Cancel Large Group Gatherings Now'

For King County, there was simply no squaring the decision to continue holding sporting events with its overall message to the public.

On March 5, one hour after the county issued that press release, the public health department responded on Facebook to a commenter asking why the Emerald City Comic Con, which drew nearly 100,000 people last year, was still scheduled to be held.

“At this time, we are making a recommendation to postpone or cancel events greater than 10-50 people,” the reply said. “We hope that private event organizers will strongly consider our recommendation in their decision making.”

The next day, on March 6, the questions kept coming.

A little before 10 a.m., an engineer copied Constantine on an email urging that Comic Con, scheduled for the following week, should be canceled and the upcoming Sounders match should be played without spectators. “It is time for public health to trump (sorry) other considerations,” he wrote.

Comic Con organizers had decided to move ahead in late February—taking comfort, in part, from the fact the Sounders still planned to play, said Lance Fensterman, president of Reedpop, the company that puts on Comic Con.

The event was a massive undertaking. Blocks in 15 hotels had been reserved. Three ballrooms had been booked. More than 80,000 tickets had been sold.

But on March 6, at 10:30 a.m., organizers announced they were postponing the convention. “[W]e are following the guidance of the local public health officials,” the announcement said. “[I]t is our duty to make sure that your safety comes first.”

“We had to make a call,” Fensterman said in an interview. “And we did.”

Constantine declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an interview with The Seattle Times last month, Constantine said that March 6 was, for him, the day when the demand for action most hit home. “This is a time for pulling out all the stops,” the director general of the World Health Organization had just said.

But Constantine said he awoke on the 6th to see that Seattle’s public places were still crowded. The outbreak had hardly altered daily life at all.

Half an hour after Comic Con’s announcement, Constantine’s deputy chief of staff emailed another staffer: “Dow is eager to see a list of events for just next week ASAP. Thank you!”

Late in the morning, a contractor paid to help Constantine’s office with Facebook and other social media platforms emailed Constantine’s communications director: “One question we’re getting a TON is why King County isn’t forcing the cancelation of events like Sounders matches …”

That same morning, Walter Sive, a financial consultant who has worked for several health care institutions, opened The Seattle Times. The first section detailed deaths in a nursing home, the state running short on public health money and a visit to Washington by Vice President Mike Pence to address the COVID-19 outbreak. There was even an artist’s rendering of someone coughing, spewing germs.

But when Sive turned to the second section, there, at the top of the page, was the headline, “Sounders match is still on for Saturday.”

“It was like reading a newspaper from two different planets,” Sive said in an interview.

Sive emailed Constantine, saying he was “rather stunned” by the conflicting messages coming from the county. “I’m appalled that the Sounders have not called off the game,” he wrote. “It puts at risk the health of our entire region. … [I]t is also a slap in the face to all of us who have been out there cancelling events and changing operations whatever the financial cost to us.”

For whatever reason, this email seemed to have the effect of a reckoning. Sive also sent it to Duchin, who responded to a colleague: “I do think we should move to canceling gatherings >500-1000.” Then, about a half hour later, Duchin went further, “Yes, I want to cancel large group gatherings now.”

A week before, on Feb. 29, a Washington State Department of Health official had asked Duchin if he would advise canceling the Sounders’ March 1 season opener. Neither advised canceling the match, but Duchin said fans, “as much as possible,” should avoid “close face-to-face contact.”

Now, Duchin’s thinking had shifted. But that didn’t translate into immediate action. After Duchin wrote of wanting to cancel all large events, a colleague scheduled a meeting for the next morning for public health officials to talk about next steps. The day after that, on March 8, public health officials would brief elected officials, including Constantine and the governor.

That meant the second meeting would be held the morning after the Sounders match.

When asked by a reporter about the lag between Duchin’s email and the canceling of events, Apa wrote in reply: “None of our decisions have been instantaneous or done in isolation, and with respect to closures in particular, there are overlapping authorities between the county and state.”

“Dr. Duchin’s e-mail was one thread in a number of conversations happening among elected leaders and health officials in the region and state,” Apa wrote. Describing the meeting on March 7 meeting among health officials, Apa wrote, “The Sounders match that day was not part of the conversation, and there were no considerations to close it.”

A Constantine spokesman said the executive never received Duchin’s email.

Duchin, in an interview, said public health officials try to find “the sweet spot” in making the transition to mandatory control measures. Close large events too early, and you risk community fatigue and noncompliance when distancing remains essential. Close them too late, and a surge of patients could overwhelm hospitals.

In the hours before the match, pleas and questions kept coming into the county executive’s office.

In the morning, one emailer wrote Constantine’s office to “make URGENT REQUEST” that the match be canceled and linked to a petition signed by “750+” people. The petition’s comments included, “Life is always more important than games and business,” and “Please protect our people!”

In the afternoon, another emailer, under the subject line, “Sounders Game,” wrote to Constantine, “Why, of all events, was this not called off?”

At CenturyLink, the gates opened at 5:30 p.m.

'Catharsis and Community'

Saturday night, after the match, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said at a news conference, “We were really, really grateful to have the support of our fans.” He described various precautions the team had taken: “The kids didn’t walk out with the players today. We didn’t do a ceremonial handshake.”

Peter Tomozawa, the president of business operations and a former partner at Goldman Sachs, said the crowd was bigger than he had expected, adding, “Seattle turns out.” He described walking around before the match, talking with fans: “A really cool comment that was made to me was: ‘Thank you for hosting this event tonight. It gave us and our city something to cheer about.’”

Like other MLS teams, the Sounders rely heavily on game-day revenues. The team keeps 70% of its gate receipts and shares the rest with the league. Last year, the Sounders — one of the league’s most valuable teams — generated about $47 million of revenue, according to estimates by Forbes and Statista, a marketing analytics firm.

The day after the match, Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, a Sounders senior vice president, emailed Constantine’s staff to thank them for providing “accurate, credible information … while not prematurely sounding [the] alarm or stoking hysteria.” She added, “We stand ready to help be collaborative partners in public health, and where it remains safe to do so, provide some level of catharsis and community through our events.”

Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, said he doesn’t recall any conversations with the governor’s office about whether the Sounders match should be played on March 7.

But the next day, at the meeting with Inslee, Constantine and other elected officials, there was no doubt things had changed.

“There was a presumption from the earliest part of our conversation that we weren’t going to have any more events of that sort—I mean, large sporting events weren’t going to happen,” Postman said. “It was very clear that those days were done.”

On March 11, five days after Duchin sent that email about canceling large events, both the governor and county ordered as much. Duchin issued a health officer order prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people. At a press conference announcing the orders, Constantine talked of the need to “act with urgency.”

On March 15, the Sounders announced that a member of the club’s support staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member had worked the March 7 match but “did not have access to the general public,” the announcement said. The individual fell ill four days after the match but was now recovering and “in good spirits,” the announcement said.

King County now has more than 4,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 320 deaths, according to its data dashboard on the virus’ spread.

It’s unclear when the Sounders may play again. The pandemic drove the XFL into bankruptcy. One recent poll found that more than 70% of Americans won’t feel safe going to a sporting event until there is a coronavirus vaccine.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This story was produced in partnership with The Seattle Times. Armstrong is a reporter with ProPublica, while Kamb and Gutman write for the Seattle Times. 

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