The early indications were true: the Florida Panthers will indeed open their home arena to fans to start the 2020-21 NHL season. In an official release, the Panthers announced limited seating to 25% capacity, which translates roughly to 5,000 fans.
Time will tell if this ends up being a bad idea.
Panthers home games open to about 5,000 fans
The Panthers will begin to sell tickets for home games as early as Friday, with the goal of filling (socially distanced) seats starting with their Jan. 14 home-opener. (They’ll face the Dallas Stars — another team toying with the idea of having fans in attendance — in back-to-back games at the Panthers’ BB&T Center.)
Yes, many took the opportunity to dunk on the Panthers with attendance jokes. The most important questions revolve around safety, however. If nothing else, the Panthers have a plan.
Panthers detail guidelines
On one hand, the Panthers are naturally tooting their horns about safety measures. This includes noting that the BB&T Center “became the first NHL hockey arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating.”
(Here’s hoping the International WELL Building Institute has higher standards than, say, the Better Business Bureau.)
More concretely, the Panthers shared their safety guidelines, with the first two points being the most noteworthy:
- Mask Requirements: Properly-worn face coverings will be required for all patrons and staff at all times. Face shields, gaiters and bandanas do not qualify as face coverings.
- Health Screening: Fans will answer health and safety questions prior to entry to the building. Socially Distant In-Bowl Pod Seating: A carefully-designed limited-capacity arena seating chart will ensure all fans are seated at least six feet apart.
- Contactless Mobile Ticketing: Using the Florida Panthers section of the National Hockey League mobile application, fans will be able to load, scan, and present mobile tickets to limit contact with box office staff.
- Cashless and Mobile Ordering: Fans will be able to purchase food and beverage items using their mobile devices, as well as place food orders for contactless pick-up at select concession stand locations within BB&T Center.
- Socially Distant Entry & Exit Process: In addition to social distancing, Red Reminders signage, PAWS Markers and arena staff will ensure that guests have a safe, socially-distanced journey from arrival, to seat, to departure, always staying six feet apart.
- Plexiglass Screens: New plexiglass screens have been installed throughout the arena and concession areas for added safety.
- Updated Restrooms: Touchless sinks, soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers have been installed to reduce surface contact.
(Aside: if “updated restrooms” mean that they aren’t dens of unfettered chaos, that would indeed be a welcome change from other “arena experiences.”)
The Panthers discussed those standards in this video, too:
Is it worth the risk?
Despite those assurances, it’s fair to ask if it’s all worth it.
For one thing, it’s great that the Panthers emphasize wearing masks at all times, but will all fans in attendance actually comply? If some refuse, will they get kicked out? (It wouldn’t be surprising if fans bickered with each other about wearing masks. Good old-fashioned fun on social media, eh?)
While a COVID-19 vaccine rollout may eventually bring numbers down, the situation doesn’t seem especially promising in Florida right now. Following the holidays, reports indicated an increase in hospitalizations, and the Orlando Sentinel notes that the state is considered among the “sustained hotspots” for COVID-19. By the New York Times’ numbers, more than 22,000 people died from coronavirus in Florida, and the state encountered more than 1.3 million cases so far.
All things considered, having about 5,000 fans in attendance at Panthers home games seems awfully risky. Again, they aren’t the only team that may have fans at NHL home games, as the Stars and neighbor Tampa Bay Lightning might be among those who do the same.
Honestly, it’s frightening to consider the possibility of Panthers home games could end up being “superspreader” events.
Will measures like wearing masks and “updated restrooms” be enough to avoid such outcomes? It’s difficult to say. Unlike NFL games, Panthers contests will take place indoors. Can they spread out 5,000 fans enough that an indoor setting with hours of hockey wouldn’t lead to numerous infections?
(It’s worth noting that the Panthers held at least parts of training camp outdoors.)
Overall, it all seems very … ambitious. Do you think the Panthers can pull this off?
Coyotes to host fans up to 3,500 attendance
On the heels of the Panthers announcement, the Coyotes shared a similar plan. In their case, a maximum of 3,500 fans will be allowed to attend games at Gila River Arena.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.