Interior Health has reversed an Aug. 23 order that banned, until at least the end of September, team sports competition from happening in the region.
Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison was made aware of that news on Thursday morning (Aug. 26), a turnaround that paves the way for WHL action in Kamloops and Kelowna, games that could not have been played in either city under the previous restrictions.
“I’m hearing it for the first time,” Robison told KTW. “That’s good news, obviously. This is an evolving situation and we are monitoring it as close as we can.”
Kamloops council received an email on Thursday morning from Interior Health that said team sports are now permitted under the gathering and events order. Spectator capacity is to align with the gathering and events order, including a maximum of 100 spectators outdoors, the email stated.
The Blazers have pre-season home games slated for Sept. 15, Sept. 17 and Sept. 24. The regular season home opener is scheduled for Oct. 9.
What the updated Interior Health order means for spectator capacity inside Sandman Centre remains to be seen.
Under current provincial restrictions, Sandman Centre is limited to 50 per cent capacity. The Interior Health order published on Monday notes spectators are not permitted at indoor sporting events.
The provincial restrictions were to change on Sept. 7, when B.C. was scheduled to move into Step 4 of its COVID-19 restart plan, with few if any restrictions.
However, rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations have led provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to say that Step 4 date will in all likelihood be delayed.
“We were expecting 100 per cent capacity,” Robison said of WHL regular season action, which gets underway on Oct. 1. “Obviously, we require 100 per cent capacity in order for our franchises to continue operating. It’s been a very difficult period of time working through last season, a shortened season, but without spectators.”
The province has a target date of Sept. 13 to introduce the B.C. Vaccine Card, which will be required to enter sporting events and gain access to other non-essential services.
“There is some discretion of areas of high transmission and Interior Health is one of them, where we will be having discussions about whether we can put some of these measures in place sooner, rather than later,” Henry said this week.
“We may use it as an opportunity to test some of the vaccine card initiatives. We’ve been having some early conversations about that, and that should allow us to have some of these gatherings and events happen more safely in those areas where we already have higher transmission.”
Robison was asked for his understanding of the vaccine card — how will it affect maximum capacity in Interior arenas?
“This is something we are going to learn more about in the next week or so,” he said.
“We’ve taken some proactive measures. We require all players and hockey operations staff to be fully vaccinated. We’ve also adopted the province’s position that we’ll require all fans to be fully vaccinated. We’re taking every measure we can to make sure we deliver an environment where everyone is fully vaccinated.”
Robison said restrictions have been put into place for good reason and with the interest of the public in mind.
On Wednesday, 698 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in B.C. over the previous 24 hours, including 252 in the Interior Health region, which continues to lead in new cases within the province.
“We’ve got to give Interior Health and the individuals responsible an opportunity to assess things and we’ll be able to deal with our situation here, hopefully, within the not-too-distant future,” Robison said.
“Right now, we’re planning on starting training camp on Sept. 1. Our regular season opens on Oct. 1. We’re very fortunate in all of our locations we’re ready to go and open up with 100 per cent capacity, save and except this particular situation in Kamloops and Kelowna, which we’re monitoring very closely.”
Robison said dialogue is ongoing and productive with B.C. Hockey and viaSport, the government agency for the delivery of sport in B.C.
“At this particular stage, these matters are outside of our control and it’s a decision made largely by Interior Health as to restrictions that will apply and we’re hopeful things will improve soon and those restrictions will be lifted,” Robison said.
“In fairness, these restrictions were just handed down earlier this week and we’ll be in contact with the health authorities, I believe, next week to have further discussion as to what it may look like and how long these restrictions may be in place, but no one really can predict that.”
In the email to Kamloops council on Thursday morning, IHA notes it hopes to publish more information on its website on Thursday.