With many NHL games across North America postponed this week, there’s plenty of evidence a pause of any sort will give players and staffs a chance to recover.
That’s why, as of Saturday night, five NHL clubs went on official pauses through the holiday break and two more — Toronto and Vancouver — had games postponed through the week with more than 100 players, nearly 15 percent of the league, in protocols.
While all that’s going on, one question hasn’t fully been addressed in this latest COVID-19 outbreak: How safe are games for fans?
While the impact of Omicron has already been large, so far it has appeared less deadly and less likely to create severe illness, especially for vaccinated people. That doesn’t mean attending hockey games in poorly ventilated arenas is going to automatically be super safe though, especially when the virus has been detected on the ice already.
“Am I worried about, elite, young athletes getting sick with COVID after they’re fully vaccinated and ending up with severe cases of COVID? Not really,” said Janet Baseman, associate dean for public health practice at the University of Washington, earlier this week. “But when we’re in a situation where we’re looking at kind of the impact of outbreaks on the greater community, we’re looking at the vulnerable members of our community and we’re looking at trying to preserve our healthcare capacity in the face of whatever is to come from our continued Delta surge or whatever the Omicron transmission has to offer us in the future. It kind of becomes a question of, what is it? It depends on who we’re trying to keep safe.”
The province of Ontario already cut capacity for all sporting events — including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators — to 50 percent, and will stop serving concessions as of Monday to enforce mask policies. The Canucks also cut admission to 50 percent, and the Montreal Canadiens played a game this week without any fans in attendance.
Last season the NHL played the majority of the schedule without fans in attendance until the very end, right when the vaccine rollout was beginning. But given Omicron’s transmissibility, everything is changing. So while teams were all back to full capacity this year, this recent outbreak means the potential for rethinking how safe things are.
For anyone attending games, though, in what could be this last stretch before a potential season pause, vaccination is still highly reccommended.
“We knew all along that the vaccines were not perfect at preventing infection,” said Baseman. “So people are testing positive, even though they’re fully vaccinated. The thing that the vaccines are really incredible at is keeping people out of the hospital, keeping people from dying for the most part, so the kind of promise of the vaccines for people who thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m vaccinated now. I won’t get COVID.’ Like, that really shouldn’t have been the message. It should have been ‘Oh, great. Now that I’m vaccinated, I probably won’t die of COVID,’ which is even better.”
NHL players received enhanced protocols on Saturday similar to the ones last year, which included more masking in team settings, but masking is also relevant to fans, especially when arenas have struggled to enforce policies.
Across the NHL, any camera shots of the crowd have been sure to include unmasked spectators, and since those actively eating or drinking have been able to remove masks, it’s made it nearly impossible to enforce, even with capacity decreases.
While teams may begin stricter protocols for masks, capacity and testing, it’s still such a massive undertaking to ensure everyone at the game has limited risk of catching COVID given the transmissibility.
“The more people around the space definitely will aid with the risk of transmission, especially in these confined areas,” said Yale assistant professor of epidemiology Krystal Pollitt. “And with increasing number of cases. That’s happening now. The use of more testing is being used widely within schools and other settings and just ensuring whoever goes out onto the ice or within the building is confirmed to be non infected.”
Everything around the NHL is changing almost minute-by-minute, and there very well could be more teams going on pause, let alone the entire league. It feels like a rush to the holiday break to give teams three days off to recover and for players in COVID protocol to get over the hump.
For as long as it’s allowed to fester, though, spectators should be aware of how transmissible Omicron is, and be aware that whatever the schedule says now, in a few minutes it might no longer be true; and even if it is, proceed at your own risk.
Five coaches in protocol
While players have garnered the headlines, entering Saturday night, five NHL head coaches were also in protocol: Edmonton’s Dave Tippett, Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe, Nashville’s John Hynes, Calgary’s Darryl Sutter and Detroit’s Jeff Blashill.
A count on Saturday morning also showed 35 NHL staffers in protocol. It’s more than just players being affected; everyone in hockey has the potential to have been exposed already.
The talk all week was how much the NHL did not want to pause the season, and how as of even 48 hours before Saturday night that wasn’t even on the table.
With five teams on pause and two not playing this weekend due to COVID issues, and enhanced protocols being issued through Jan. 7 as well, everything has to be an option.
If the NHL doesn’t go to the Olympics — which feels more likely by the minute — there’s three open weeks to schedule postponed games, but still issues with some booked arenas. For example, Boston, which had a backloaded schedule, will have to play 56 games in 103 days, and their arena, TD Garden, has Disney on Ice scheduled the majority of what would have been the Olympic break.
Still a lot to be sorted out.