On the pandemic and ‘butts in seats’ at NHL, AHL and ECHL rinks during the 2020-2021 season

I haven’t had the chance to talk about this sort-of-kind-of Red Wings-related topic yet, so I’m going to take the plunge today. I hope you’ll bear with me:

We’re still in the middle of the “first wave” of a pandemic. For me and Aunt Annie, the decision to “socially distance” ourselves from just about everyone we usually encounter, wear masks when we go into public places and wash our hands very regularly were easy ones to make.

AA is immune-compromised, which means that she doesn’t have much of an immune system at all, and I am her caregiver.

I have enough preexisting conditions that the State of Michigan sent me a letter stating that I was exempt from the now-illegal work requirements associated with the state’s Medicaid expansion because I’m “of fragile health,” and as you know by now, that’s one of the reasons I’m trying to make this damn job work…

But making my job work during a pandemic as a caregiver and as someone of “fragile health” is difficult. As an example: when the World Junior Summer Showcase was still going to be held between Team USA, Team Finland and Team Sweden in Plymouth, Michigan, in late July, AA and I had a discussion about my participation in a socially-distanced, masked WJSS. We determined early on that I would not be going to a theoretical collection of top prospects for the 2020 draft because it would put both of us at too much risk, and when the tournament was canceled, I simply felt relief.

Long story long, because of my personal situation, I’m going to face a very difficult set of choices when and if the NHL, AHL, USHL, etc. seasons resume, because I’ll realistically need to socially isolate myself (see: stay in a hotel instead of commuting from home to a local rink) and/or get tested far more regularly than is possible if I am to attend hockey games and interview hockey players, masks or no masks…

And I’m sure that many of you are making hard decisions about the coronavirus/COVID-19. We should all be performing social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing procedures regardless of our political leanings, because, as of today, those are the only real ways we have of combating a virus that has killed somewhere north of 185,000 Americans.

As a hockey fan as much as anything else, I have significant concerns about the concept of allowing fans back in North American sports facilities. The NHL theoretically wants to begin its 2020-2021 season with some fans in the stands as of December 1st, but that’s an exceedingly optimistic concept at this point.

As Red Wings defenseman Kevin Bieksa told the Patriot-Ledger’s Matt Cunha last night, the players not participating in the NHL’s “Bubble” are aware that the NHL season may not begin “on time”…

“Just kind of steadily progressing for a season, for a tentative start date in late December, early January,” Biega said of the still-undefined 2020-21 NHL season. “We are in uncharted waters and territory and hopefully this is something that doesn’t happen again. (I have) three kids running around, so I keep busy.”

And Wings coach Jeff Blashill at least partially addressed the uncertain start of the 2020-2021 season while speaking with the Detroit News’s Ted Kufan (in a subscriber-only article):

►Q: How difficult is the uncertainty right now – not knowing when camp will begin, when you’ll start playing games?

►A: “Uncertainty is tough in life, it’s just reality. Uncertainty causes angst among people and causes stress and there’s no doubt uncertainty in these times, probably at an unprecedented high for everybody. With that said, pertaining to our situation, I’ve heard the dates floated about, but certainly there’s nothing written in stone and one of the things the NHL has done in their original Return to Play is not committing to anything before knowing it was really possible. So, right now, from a planning perspective, we have to make sure we’re prepared for the earliest possible start and if that gets delayed, at least we’re prepared, and that’s how we’ll go about it.”

The NHL is at an advantage over other North American professional hockey leagues in that it could at least theoretically play without fans in the stands, or at partial capacity. Each and every one of the NHL’s 30 teams would lose a ton of money without gate receipts (the Wings make somewhere between $500K and $1 million per home game, for example), but they could still operate thanks to local and national TV deals and sponsorships, as well as the financial largess of their billionaire owners. The players would take a hit in salary as well, but they could at least hold a regular season, theoretically without a “bubble” environment.

The AHL and ECHL (think: in the Wings’ case, the Grand Rapids Griffins and Toledo Walley) are in a whole other boat–without fans in the stands, it doesn’t really make financial sense to operate at all, because the organizations depend upon ticket sales almost exclusively to pay the vast majority of their bills. Some minor pro teams will be facing financial insolvency if there is no 2020-2021 season.

So it’s imperative to many pro hockey teams that a) there is a 2020-2021 regular season that b) involves fans paying money to attend games in person, despite the concept that fans in the stands is a sketchy idea from a public health standpoint without a vaccine.

Barring a true October Surprise of positive proportions (and one never knows with this administration), health experts suggest that it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the year, and it probably won’t be widely available at first.

Does that mean that fans who want to witness hockey games this upcoming season will have to sign the kind of “COVID waivers” that attendees of political rallies and the few in-person concerts held over the course of this pandemic have had to sign? That’s entirely possible…

And, getting to the damn point of all of this, The Athletic’s Sean Fitz-Gerald spoke with several public health experts to assess where all of us stand in terms of fans paying to put butts in seats this season:

“I’m hesitant to say it’s impossible,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist who is an associate professor at the University of Alberta. “But I do think there’s some fundamental questions that would need to be answered to see if you could make it reasonably safe. And I say reasonably safe because I don’t think we can make anything completely safe. So reasonably safe is really what we’re aiming for.”

Unlike the soccer stadium in Montreal, which is open air, NBA and NHL games are all played indoors, and Saxinger had questions about the airflow inside those arenas. She did not know, for example, what kind of evidence there might be of respiratory virus transmission in the stands — if someone sitting in front could end up exposing everyone seated behind them because of the air conditioning system.

“So what are the big risks? The risks really have to do with the people that you’re close to, the direction of the airflow and whether there’s a lot of pinch points where people are going to end up clustering,” she said. “Because it’s hard to imagine filling an arena without having a whole bunch of people clustered all over the place.”

Just as a non-bubble 2020-2021 regular season could be derailed via irresponsible social behavior by the players involved in the process, Dr. Saxinger suggests that fans in seats yields the possibility of the kind of “super-spreader” events that we’ve seen at bars and other public gatherings this past summer.

Fitz-Gerald also spoke to University of Toronto doctor Andrew Morris and Toronto General Hospital doctor Isaac Bogoch regarding the fans-in-seats concept; Bogoch points out that, as we’re talking about a “novel coronavirus,” planning for the future of professional sports leagues is difficult right now, because so much of our knowledge about fighting this terrible virus changes on a day-to-day basis:

“As far away as January seems right now, it actually isn’t that far away, especially when we’re thinking in pandemic timeframes,” said Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist based at Toronto General Hospital. “The situation on the ground can certainly change rapidly. I think that it’s unlikely that something like that would happen in January.

“But on the other hand, it’s very hard to predict more than 3-4 weeks in the future, especially with something like this. There very well could be vaccine programs that are started, or that could be in various phases of implementation.”

Fitz-Gerald continues (paywall), and the long story short is that “butts in seats” may not be realistic at all or even remotely possible in a world where asymptomatic people can transmit the virus, and sick people feel pressured to attend sporting events and concerts to earn a return on their financial investment…

But we really don’t know what’s going to happen over the next three-and-three-quarters’ months, and the NHL, AHL and ECHL are going to have to be extremely flexible in terms of contingency planning, including possibly holding games in partially-full and/or socially-distanced arenas.

We just don’t really know where we stand in terms of treatments or vaccines come December or January, and the chances of a regular season happening outside a bubble look like they’re 50-50 at this point.

That’s “scary” for the team owners, the teams as organizations, the players, and, most importantly, fans like you and me. There’s going to be uncertainty as to whether people of all states of health can safely attend major events until a reasonably effective vaccine or vaccines for COVID-19 are developed, especially in a country where so many people are still catching the virus, suffering from its symptoms, and dying from it.

At this point, the best things we can do to ensure that there is a 2020-2021 hockey season at the various professional levels of the sport involve protecting ourselves and others, and hoping for the best, really.

So “socially distance” when possible, wear a mask in public, wash your hands, and, if I may get political for a moment, exercise your damn right to vote this November, regardless of whom you might support in our local, state and federal elections, because all of those levels of government determine how we will handle this pandemic as a country during 2020 and 2021.

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George Malik

My name is George Malik, and I'm the Malik Report's editor/blogger/poster. I have been blogging about the Red Wings since 2006, when MLive hired me to work their SlapShots blog, and I joined Kukla's Korner in 2011 as The Malik Report. I'm starting The Malik Report as a stand-alone site, hoping that having my readers fund the website is indeed the way to go to build a better community and create better content.