Ontario is opening the door wider for fans at sporting events, just in time for the NHL season and baseball’s stretch drive.
Attendance for Maple Leaf and Raptors games at Scotiabank Arena will be capped at 50 per cent capacity or 10,000, whichever is less, starting Saturday.
The Blue Jays are able to increase Rogers Centre capacity to 30,000 for the final regular-season homestand, starting Sept. 28, in their push to make the playoffs. The 500 level will be re-opened.
Toronto FC said capacity for their games at BMO Field will rise from 15,000 to 21,000, while the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats are increasing capacity to 75 per cent at Tim Hortons Field, or 18,000 fans.
The Ontario Hockey League said the league’s 17 Ontario-based teams will be expanding to 50 per cent capacity, starting with Saturday’s pre-season games.
Noting almost 80 per cent of eligible Ontarians are fully vaccinated, Ontario chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore says “we are able to recommend cautiously easing capacity limits in certain settings.”
For indoor sporting settings, that means 50 per cent capacity or 10,000 people, whichever is less. Capacity will increase to up to 75 per cent capacity or 30,000 people, whichever is less, for outdoor seated events.
“Increasing capacity limits does not mean we can let our guard down,” said Moore. “We must remain cautious and humble in the face of this Delta variant. Although several of our key indicators are stable and our vaccination rates are among the highest in the world, we must all remain vigilant and continue following the Public Health measures and advice,”
Friday’s announcement comes on the eve of the Leafs pre-season opener against the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
When the Leafs and Canadiens last met — a Game 7 first-round playoff loss for the Leafs on May 31, 2020 — there were some 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers in the stands.
“MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) remains fully supportive of the province’s process to allow a safe return to full operations for all businesses, including games, concerts and other public events, with the mandatory vaccination policy and this progressive approach to returning to full capacities in venues,” MLSE president and CEO Michael Friisdahl said in a statement.
“Based on today’s direction, we have adjusted our operations plan to accommodate 50 per cent of the venue capacity beginning with Saturday’s first Maple Leafs pre-season game, and we will continue to work closely with the province to provide the safest environment within our venues to allow for a return to full capacity for the start of the Maple Leafs and Raptors regular seasons.”
The last time Scotiabank Arena was filled to capacity was March 10, 2020, when 19,124 saw the Leafs edge the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1. The pandemic prompted leagues to ground to a halt soon after.
As previously announced, MLSE requires all spectators and employees to provide proof of full vaccination along with government-issued ID for both its indoor and outdoor events, which includes Scotiabank Arena, BMO Field and Coca-Cola Coliseum. Proof of a negative COVID-19 test will not be accepted for admittance except for guests with a verified medical exemption.
Children 11 or younger are exempt from these requirements.
The Jays also require proof of full vaccination for all fans aged 12 and older. A negative COVID-19 test will no longer be accepted except for individuals with a doctor’s note indicating they cannot receive the vaccine due to medical exemptions.
The Ottawa Senators, also affected by Friday’s announcement, say they hope to be able to host a capacity crowd for its opener.
The Winnipeg Jets say they will have full-capacity crowds at the Canada Life Centre this season. The Vancouver Canucks are currently limited to 50 per cent capacity by provincial health orders in B.C., but the team has said hopes that restrictions will be eased by opening night and plans for a full house when the regular-season starts.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers are currently allowed to fill their arenas, even though the province of Alberta is under a state of public health emergency because of a COVID-19 surge. The Montreal Canadiens are currently allowed 33-per-cent capacity at the 21,302-seat Bell Centre.
Nick Eaves, MLSE’s chief venues and operations officer, said MLSE will use all of Scotiabank Arena which should allow for some physical distancing.
“There will be pods. Those pods will be distributed throughout the whole arena … Certainly the expectation, where we can, is to do everything we possibly can to keep that distance,” he said in an interview.
The first two Leaf pre-season games were not part of the season-ticket package. Things will become more complicated when the games involving the season ticket-holders kick in with the third pre-season game and the regular season.
“We’re going to work with Public Health (authorities). Our hope is that we can obviously demonstrate to them that everything we do is being done safely and we’re hopeful that we can move that capacity number up. But for the first couple of games, it isn’t a member (season ticket-holder) issue,” said Eaves.
“Ultimately if we have events whereby the number of members exceeds capacity, then we’ll obviously have a plan to just manage that inventory with our members.”
All Scotiabank Arena attendees will also be required to wear face coverings including when sitting in the stands unless eating or drinking. Neck gaiters will not be permitted.
Eaves said staff will remind fans about the masking requirement, noting spectators will also have to take personal responsibility to follow the rules.
There are tighter restrictions on bags allowed in — only small purses or clutch-style bags smaller than 6.5 by 4.5 inches (16.5 by 11.4 centimetres) — will be in place at Scotiabank Arena. Fans are asked to self-screening assessment prior to entering Scotiabank Arena.
All tickets for Scotiabank Arena events will be delivered digitally and will be scanned from fans’ mobile devices at the arena “to maintain a contactless fan experience.” Fans will have to enter from their assigned gate
The venue will be open 90 minutes ahead of the game, rather than the usual 60 minutes, to allow fans time to enter.
The arena will be fully cash-free, only accepting debit and credit cards. MLSE says it has employed “enhanced cleaning practices” as well as performing a detailed analysis of the arena’s ventilation systems.
—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press