While many public health experts say large gatherings are not recommended amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a plan to allow for large watching parties for NHL games once the hockey season resumes is beginning to take shape in Edmonton.
Edmonton and Toronto will serve as the hockey league’s two hub cities once it resumes play next month.
Tim Shipton, vice-president of corporate communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group, said plans are in the works for the site of the old Baccarat Casino beside Rogers Place.
“The number one goal of the space is to create a safe area for fans to watch Oilers hockey and Hub hockey games, respecting the very prudent and reasonable rules that are in place for outdoor social gatherings,” Shipton said in a statement.
While fans may be ecstatic about the idea of an outdoor viewing area for games, public health experts are giving pause.
Dr. Hakique Virani, a professor of public health at the University of Alberta, is worried that Edmonton is a hub city in the first place.
“The concern is we are seeing a trajectory in infection and transmission of COVID that is not encouraging and we’d like to see it go back to what it looked like in late June.”
He said mass gatherings are not a way to bring COVID-19 numbers down and said hockey brings close contact, like high-fiving when a team scores.
“These could indeed be hubs of transmission of infection.”
Karen McDonnell, a spokesperson with the City of Edmonton, said OEG has applied for and received a permit for the fencing that is being installed around the Rogers Place bubble. Because the land on which the former Baccarat Casino was located is private property, a permit is not required from the city, she said.
Fencing started going up around the downtown NHL bubble earlier this week.
McDonnell said while the NHL games are being played in Edmonton, players, league staff and all other officials must remain in the bubble for the duration of the playoffs. The bubble includes Rogers Place, practice facilities and hotels.
“There will be no opportunity to engage with NHL players or personnel at any time,” McDonnell said in a statement.
“The City of Edmonton’s first priority is public safety and the safety of our staff. Administration is working closely with Alberta Health Services, the NHL and our partners to create an environment that is safe for fans, players, coaches and staff.”
Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the event would be required to follow public health measures while Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said public health has met with OEG to discuss their proposal and provide recommendations.
Virani said not having a fan area would be the best idea when it comes to public health but had this suggestion if plans go ahead.
“I think that monitoring it closely… is necessary. But I think it’s very difficult to expect any kind of environmental health, public health officer will be able to manage the crowds you might expect to see at such a celebration,” Virani said.
On Wednesday, Alberta recorded an additional 133 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and reported two more deaths. There were 1,251 active cases in the province as of Wednesday afternoon.
–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich