Calgary

Many unmasked hockey fans jam into Saddledome as restrictions drop

The arena can now operate at full capacity, and fans can choose whether or not to wear a mask. However, a large crowd - where many may not be vaccinated - can still present a risk, says an infectious disease specialist.

Alberta among first provinces to drop masking rules, no longer require vaccination proof in large venues

Now that Alberta is in Step 2 of its three-step plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions, the Saddledome can operate at full capacity again, and hockey fans do not have to wear a mask inside. (Sportsnet/NHL)

A mostly unmasked sea of red and white jerseys filled the Saddledome for the Calgary Flames vs. Montreal Canadiens game Thursday night.

The arena, which can seat over 19,000 people, can now operate at full capacity, and fans can choose whether or not to wear a mask now that the province has entered Step 2 in its three-step plan to lift pandemic restrictions

"It's just great to go back to having some sense of normalcy," hockey fan James Benford said before entering the arena.

Josh Benford echoed this, saying, "It's going to be nice to see everybody with their faces out there cheering on the Flames, hopefully."

Both Benfords say they didn't plan to wear a mask inside and felt comfortable with their choice.

Hockey fans Josh and James Benford say they feel comfortable watching the Flames vs Canadiens game without wearing a mask. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

However, not all fans are shedding the protective layer quite yet.

Flames fan Brian Nancoo says he understands he doesn't have to wear a mask, but he isn't quite ready to take it off while walking around inside.

"I'm still very cautious, which is why I'm wearing the mask and I'll keep wearing the mask during the game and try to social distance," he said.

"I don't have any issues with people who choose not to wear the mask, really," he added.

Brian Nancoo says he will continue to wear a mask when he is not seated in the arena as a precaution. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Once seated, he says, he may take it off depending on how close the person seated next to him is. 

"I think generally people are more careful and more responsible about it and I feel good about that," said Nancoo, adding he expects the mood will be "really good tonight."

'Real risk'

Alberta is one of the first provinces to fully drop masking rules in large venues, while also no longer requiring people to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

"There is some concern that Alberta probably is going a little quicker than other provinces, and at the same time, we simply do not have the health care capacity if we get this wrong," said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious disease at the University of Calgary.

"Any events where we're bringing large numbers of people together, including a significant percentage that may be unvaccinated, there is a real risk that we could be seeing people acquire the virus that will eventually develop severe disease, requiring hospitalization."

Vaccines are still "remarkably good" at preventing severe disease and hospitalization, he says, adding while hospitalization numbers in the province are declining, they aren't dropping as quickly as they did in previous waves of the pandemic.

However, he says it's difficult to tell if a hockey game like this could turn into a super-spreader event, because with reduced COVID-19 testing in the province, there is less data to help understand where and how the the virus is spreading.

Jenne says wearing a mask is still a useful tool, but there isn't as much benefit if the people around you aren't wearing one too. 

"I think this is going to boil down to individual people's risk and not just for themselves, but I think they need to consider the people that are in their cohorts as well."

The game went to overtime with the Canadiens beating the Flames 5-4.

With files from Jo Horwood

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