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COVID-19: Ottawa BlackJacks denied vaccinated health workers in the stands for home games

Ottawa’s professional basketball team will not host hundreds of vaccinated local health workers at its home opener on June 24 after the Ontario government denied a request for a similar exemption granted to the Toronto Maple Leafs in May.

The local Canadian Elite Basketball League franchise wrote to Premier Doug Ford and sport minister Lisa MacLeod on June 3, requesting to have Ottawa health workers in attendance when the league returns to play later this month.

The BlackJacks said the team consulted with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which manages the TD Place arena where the team plays, to determine that 300 fully vaccinated health workers could safely distance themselves in the 10,000-seat venue and take in a game of basketball.

In the letter, BlackJacks president Michael Cvitkovic cited the precedent set by the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 31, when the hockey club had 550 health workers in the stands for a playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens.

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“It is only fitting that the Ottawa BlackJacks — the next professional sports franchise to host a game in the province of Ontario — welcome our unsung heroes of the pandemic as well,” he wrote.

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But Health Minister Christine Elliott wrote in a response Friday evening that despite the “special exemption” made for health workers in Toronto, the same accommodations won’t be made yet in Ottawa.

“While we know now is not the time to begin reopening indoor sports venues, we will take your generous offer into consideration and we will follow up if an opportunity presents itself in the future,” she wrote in a letter to Cvitkovic obtained by Global News.

Elliott pointed to Ontario’s reopening roadmap and said that indoor sporting events will be permitted in Step 3 of the plan. The earliest the province could hit that phase would be July 23, permitting vaccination targets are achieved.

Speaking to Global News on Friday, Cvitkovic said the BlackJacks and CEBL just want to be “treated fairly” and the same as any other sports league.

“We’re not looking for anything special. We’re looking for the same thing that was allowed for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” he said. “If it was allowed in Toronto at a hockey game, it should be allowed in Ottawa at a basketball game.”

The June 24 home opener marks not only the first game of the season but also the first time the BlackJacks will play at their own home arena in franchise history — the team played in a CEBL bubble in St. Catharines, Ont. for its inaugural season in 2020.

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Cvitkovic said the CEBL’s return-to-play plan in Ontario has been cleared by all three levels of government, and has backing from Mayor Jim Watson.

Read more: PHAC still reviewing CFL return-to-play COVID-19 protocols, Dr. Njoo says

The mayor also sent a request to Ford on June 3 expressing his support for the BlackJacks’ plan, his office confirmed to Global News.

“I believe this is a safe and worthwhile initiative to replicate in Ottawa what was done in Toronto earlier this week. I’m certain this proposal would be a welcomed gesture of gratitude for our fully vaccinated healthcare workers in recognition of their efforts over the last 15 months,” Watson wrote earlier this month, according to his press secretary.

Cvitkovic said sports can be an “outlet” for people who are struggling to “let loose” and focus on something other than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s nobody that deserves it more than our health workers right now,” he said.

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