If the spectator-less bubble approach worked for the NHL and NBA — even Pacific FC in Canadian Premier League soccer — why not apply the general principle to youth, community and oldtimers sports?
That was the question posed this week by B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“We’ve seen transmission in spectators who are watching games and that is the part where we need to say, OK, and focus on the players like the NHL did,” Henry said during a pandemic update.
“Focus on our player bubbles and make sure we’re not putting people at risk.”
An increasing number of parents, grandparents and friends have been encircling soccer and field-lacrosse pitches and baseball diamonds to watch games as sport on the Island, and across B.C., continues to reopen.
They appear generally to be in family groups and socially distanced from one another, and mostly under the maximum of 50 people allowed for gatherings, but that didn’t stop Henry from issuing her caution.
“I do think it’s important for us to focus on the players, particularly on young people who are playing on teams,” she said.
“And that may mean not all parents are in the hockey rink or on the sides of the football field. I think it’s really important to stick to small numbers.
“It’s a good growth opportunity for children, so let’s look at it that way. Keep the sidelines spectators-free so that it’s safe for the players.”
Henry also issued a warning to masters and oldtimers athletes, some of whom pre-COVID played for several teams.
“We have talked about limiting, so you are not exposing yourself to multiple groups of people,” she said.
“So, if I’m playing oldtimers hockey, then I do it with one group of people and not my regular two or three teams I might play on. Those are important considerations for this year and for getting us through this pandemic.” Vancouver Island Soccer League executive-director Vince Greco concurred: “We are telling our players there are no coolers and banter after games. Go home and be grateful you got to run around for 90 minutes,” he said.
Henry, who throughout the pandemic has preferred a persuasive approach, did not indicate if any stronger stipulations would be issued by her office regarding sports and spectators. Even at higher levels of sport in B.C., the 50-people maximum for gatherings is in effect. That includes the VISL.
“We do appreciate that family and friends have missed it and are wanting to attend games, but it’s not the best of ideas to come out and watch,” Greco said.
“We are not encouraging spectators and don’t want lots of people to come out to watch our games. There has not been one transmission in B.C. because of soccer and we don’t want to wreck that.
“If some family members do watch, make sure to distance and wear a mask and keep the total number viewing to under 50. That’s up to the teams to monitor.
“It gets tricky sometimes, with fans leaving one game and fans coming to the next game on the same field. It’s a learning process for everybody. But our teams are thinking about it and implementing it. We want to be in compliance because we don’t want to get shutdown.”
B.C. Hockey CEO Cam Hope said his organization is taking a “pro-active approach” in actively communicating with the various youth associations and leagues. “It is community by community with some flexibility, but 50 is the maximum regardless, and then only if it’s safe,” Hope said.
The Victoria Minor Hockey Association is allowing only one spectator per player with strict screening procedures to enter the rinks for both the players and their one allowed parent/spectator.
The B.C. Hockey League has mandated that no fans are allowed into the rinks for the extended pre-season Island Cup or similar Lower Mainland and Interior tournaments taking place.
Sports leagues are hoping for some fans to be allowed, however, beginning early next year. The Western Hockey League, which includes the Victoria Royals and is set to open on Jan. 8, has requested 50 per cent of arena capacity, but WHL commissioner Ron Robison admitted: “The numbers may be significantly lower.”
Island-based Pacific FC is hoping spectator restrictions ease by next spring when the pro soccer CPL opens its 2021 season. The pandemic-abbreviated 2020 CPL season was played without fans in a single-site bubble hub in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
“We would like to see fans allowed into Westhills Stadium on a percentage-capacity basis for next season,” said PFC president and co-owner Josh Simpson.
“It’s hard to operate sports teams without fans. Not just for the financial side of things, but also for the atmosphere and excitement they provide.”