MacLeod says Ontario hasn't provided verbal approval of CFL's return-to-play plans

TORONTO — Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, says the province hasn't verbally approved the CFL's return-to-play protocols and there's no timeline for it to do so.

"No, we have not added our name yet to signing off on that," MacLeod told reporters Thursday during a conference call. "We continue to work with them (CFL) at the public-health table . . . but to this point and time, no, the chief medical officer of health in Ontario has not yet signed off on a return-to-play protocol.

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"I don't have a timeframe that I can provide you with because the process in the back end really is the league coming to us with a proposal, my team working with them to refine it to go to the health command table and then health comes back with a number of different queries. So the sooner we can land on it the better, obviously, but at this point and time I could not give you or provide you with a definitive timeline."

Ontario becomes the second province to state it hasn't provided verbal approval of the CFL's return-to-play proposal. Last week, B.C. government officials offered a similar sentiment following a television report that stated the six provinces with CFL franchises had verbally approved the return-to-play protocols.

The CFL didn't play football in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and had originally planned to stage a full 18-game season starting in June 2021. Last month, the league pushed back the start of the campaign to Aug. 5 and reduced the number of games to 14, subject to the state of the pandemic.

The alteration resulted in the Grey Cup game being rescheduled for Dec. 12 in Hamilton instead of Nov. 21.

"It is my hope that Hamilton will be home to the Grey Cup this coming fall," MacLeod said. "Obviously, public health conditions will continue to dictate whether that's possible or not.

"The last I heard this week is the threshold for a return-to-play for the CFL (is) quite high. We do expect that they would be able to meet them. We would expect they would be similar to the NHL and AHL return-to-play model."

Last month, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie stated it was the league's hope that when it resumed play, it could be with limited fans in the stands. The suggestion has been made that with more Canadians being vaccinated, upwards of 5,000 fans could be allowed to attend football games.

That would provide some economic boost for franchises, which rely heavily upon ticket sales to generate revenue.

A CFL source has often told The Canadian Press the league lost between $60-and-$80 million last year by not having a season. The source has spoken on the condition of anonymity because the CFL has not publicly stated its 2020 financial losses.

But MacLeod finds it hard to believe that fans would be allowed into stadiums for CFL games.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but I think it might be a bit ambitious for two reasons," she said.

"One is we have to make sure we have an adequate supply of vaccine and it is into the arms of the population. Rapid antigen testing is another issue."

The other point, MacLeod said, is just how comfortable many Ontarians would be with congregating in public.

"That's a fear I have, not just for sports but also for live music," she said. "And while there will be some committed fans who'll want to get into those stands, there are a number of people in Ontario today that are still far too reticent given the public health restrictions and the current COVID reality across Ontario."

MacLeod did express optimism regarding the CFL's target date of Aug. 5.

"Look, my hope is in a couple of weeks we're going to be in a really good position with a lot of vaccinations, case counts going down, pressure on our hospitals being relieved that some of my sectors can reopen," she said. "Hopefully most of them will be able to reopen . . . so my hope is that is not too soon and we will look at that date as probably not too ambitious.

"Really protecting athletes and their respiratory function is going to be absolutely critical but I think we should work toward an August date. If we have to push that out, they will but we'll definitely work with them to see what art of possible is."

MacLeod said she has not spoken recently with Toronto Blue Jays officials about if or when the baseball team can return to Rogers Centre. The franchise is currently playing games in the U.S. with plans to relocate soon to Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y.

"I haven't had a conversation in recent months with the Blue Jays," she said. "That's not to say that those in my ministry haven't been in conversations with them but I would be happy to follow up with them.

"Obviously we are very proud of the Toronto Blue Jays. They're going to be very key to our economic recovery and our social recovery when we come out of COVID."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.

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