SASKATOON -- Curlers will be able to return to the pebbled ice this fall and new safety precautions and guidelines because of COVID-19 will make the sport look a little different.

“Everything right from the handshake,” said CurlSask executive director Ashley Howard. “We're a sport with a lot of sportsmanship, just long standing traditions and we look our opponent in the eye at the start of the end, the end of the game, and say good game or good curling. I think we'll miss that.”

Guidelines will be similar to those that Curling Canada has introduced, including physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning protocols, implementing safety measures like reducing the number of sweepers on a shot from two to one, and efficient contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.

“I think the big one that stands out is the one sweeper, that's really going to change kind of what we've always known about curling — there's two sweepers going down the ice,” said Saskatchewan curler Kirk Muyres.

“I think on the recreational level it could kind of be fun. One one person can go sweep and the other person can go have a drink while they're waiting so that could be neat, and I think on the elite side, it's going to change the game. All four players work together to make shots and put rocks into really good spots, and I think without that extra set of eyes, the placement of stones is not nearly going to be as precise.”

Howard says the biggest advantage that curling has on a return to play is the ability to maintain physical distancing throughout a game, while being a non-contact sport.

“I think curling is really well positioned to return,” she said, adding that there is also no shared equipment.

“Just the amount of space that we have within a curling club, 2,000 square feet per sheet of ice, only eight people on the ice at a time, we're able to kind of spread out and maintain safe distance.”

The changes will also affect how people watch the sport live, with Howard saying the CurlSask recommendation would be reducing capacity at spiels and in clubs to 50 per cent.

“We definitely want to keep fans six meters apart, if they're from different households,” said Howard. “And then looking into some web alternatives as far as streaming to make sure we get curling out there and fans can still enjoy the sport.”

Major sports leagues in North America have adjusted to playing games in front of empty stadiums and arenas, and Muyres says curlers should be prepared to do the same for curling’s biggest tournaments.

“I cannot see a crowd being in place come March, and it is going to be totally different,” he said. “A lot of the atmosphere and the adrenaline that comes from a Scotties and a Brier are because there's six or seven thousand people watching.”

One positive that Howard sees in respect to physical distancing rules, is that it could attract more people into participating.

“Some people have really just experienced a lot of cancellations and want to get into something that'll keep them busy through the winter,” she said.

“We also have other disciplines too, being mixed doubles where there's even less people on the ice, even stick curling where you're really not touching anything other than the stick that you bring yourself. There's definitely a few options even within the game.”

Saskatoon’s Sutherland Curling Club will be the first in the province to have ice, which should be as early as this weekend, according to Howard.

“They're playing host to our high performance training centre, so all of our video equipment is there, smart broom technology, speed traps all the tools and things that the teams need to get tuned up for their seasons,” she said, adding that other rinks should “come online pretty quickly after that.”

The club will see as many as 35 to 40 high performance teams compete in modified round robin tournaments.

“It also gives us a chance to be leaders in our return as well, and see how things work in the real world. There haven't been too many rocks thrown under these protocols, and none in Saskatchewan yet, so this high performance Training Centre gives us an idea to look at what the new normal is going to be like for curling.”