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Do hockey players need to take a shot? New vaccination rules causing confusion for skaters, ice-rink operators

Shifting rules at indoor rinks in the city and suburbs — including some that don’t appear to align with new mandates — have led to players and parents scratching their heads.

Tom Crozier (left) and his son Matthew Crozier leave McFetridge Sports Center after playing hockey on Friday, January 6, 2022. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times  

Confusing rules on how proof-of-vaccination mandates would affect skaters at ice rinks in the city and suburbs have left some hockey players and their parents scratching their heads.

Similar, but not identical, mandates took effect Jan. 3 for gymnasiums, bars and restaurants that require proof of vaccination for patrons 5 and older.

The city’s mandate was announced Dec. 21. Cook County followed suit two days later.

Over the holiday break, parents quickly started calling and emailing local officials to see whether youth skaters would need to show proof of vaccination to play hockey — as is the case to work out in a gym.

Clarifications were issued.

The county announced it would not require skaters 18 and younger to show proof of vaccination. And spectators would not need to show proof of vaccination, provided that no food or drink is being served at the rink and patrons remain masked at all times.

The city, though, said an indoor ice rink falls under the mandate governing gyms and fitness venues and is therefore still subject to the mandate.

“Standard open ice time and recreational leagues (whether youth or adult) would require vaccination check,” Elisa Sledzinska, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said in an email to the Sun-Times.

The email made an exception, however, for programming at a rink that is ”organized or sponsored by an after school program, daycare, school, or the Park District.” Youth playing at private rinks in privately-run leagues are not exempt.

At rinks around the city, a patchwork of rules and enforcement has followed as the mandate rolled out this week.

At McFetridge Sports Center on the North Side, one of two indoor rinks run by the Chicago Park District, vaccination cards were being checked Friday at the door for an open skate. Though masks were required on the ice, only one skater out of about a dozen could be seen wearing one.

“Next week it might be different; it seems like it’s constantly shifting,” said parent and player Tom Crozier, 51, whose 8-year-old son plays for a park district team called the River Dogs.

Still, he is happy the rinks remain open. “I’m just glad we can play hockey,” he said, referring to the shutdowns last year when the sport was on hiatus due to the pandemic.

While the closures applied to all fitness centers at the time, hockey teams across the country have seen a series of COVID outbreaks and at least one study found an increased risk of transmission on indoor rinks.

Even rink operators appear confused by the latest rules, however. According to a person with knowledge of rink operations at McFetridge, youth hockey teams unaffiliated with the park district would also not have to adhere to the vaccine mandate, although it was not immediately clear whether that was in accordance with the city’s policy.

Likewise, Fifth Third Arena, which has two indoor, public rinks at its facility near the United Center, notified some hockey team captains late last month that while it would be cutting off food and drink service, it would not require proof of vaccination for anyone involved in its youth or adult programs. The notification did say the ice arena would be taking a “firm stance” on requiring masks for everyone, including skaters on the ice.

However, a notice on the arena’s website now says “all on-ice participants 18 years of age and older must show proof of vaccination and photo ID.”

Spokespeople for the rink, which is owned by the Chicago Blackhawks, did not respond to requests for comment.

Johnny’s Ice House — a privately run rink that has two locations west of downtown — is following the city’s mandate and requiring proof of vaccination, according to a notification to patrons.

Bret Hartung, assistant coach for the Stallions, a Chicago youth hockey team that’s not affiliated with the park district, said it’s confusing trying to stay abreast of the rules but said everyone seems to be doing their best.

“We’re trying to follow the rules as we realize what they are to each rink we visit,” said Hartung, whose team regularly plays at park district and private facilities in the city and suburbs.

A sign at McFetridge Sports Complex.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times