Montreal Canadiens ask Quebec government to increase arena capacity to 50%

The Montreal Canadiens say they're asking the province for permission to allow 10,500 fans to attend upcoming playoff games in Montreal, up from 3,500.

Quebec Health Ministry says discussions are ongoing with public health authorities

The Bell Centre is currently permitting only 3,500 spectators during the Montreal Canadiens' playoff run. They are masked, socially distanced and must stay in certain sections. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The Montreal Canadiens say they're asking the province for permission to allow 10,500 fans to attend upcoming playoff games in Montreal, up from 3,500.

France Margaret Bélanger, the team's executive vice-president and chief commercial officer, told reporters today that discussions with the Quebec government began on Friday, but the team has not yet received an answer.

Bélanger says that with the first home game in the Canadiens' Stanley Cup final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning scheduled for Friday, she hopes to get an answer today.

"The Bell Centre is two million square feet, so we've got a lot of space, and we intend to use that space to make sure that all these guys are distanced from one another,'' she said. Fans would sit in 14 sections of several hundred people, she said, with separate entrances and food-service facilities. Mask wearing would be mandatory.

"We've never had a COVID case at the Bell Centre since we resumed our operations there on Jan. 3, and this is what we want. We don't want anything going forward,'' Bélanger said.

Changing provincial health rules

She said the team would be open to requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of admittance, but Quebec has so far ruled out the use of so-called vaccine passports to allow people to access private events.

The province's Health Ministry says it has received the request from the team and discussions are ongoing with public health authorities.

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Quebec has changed its COVID-19 restrictions several times since the Canadiens began their playoff run. Several of those moves — including increasing capacity at arenas from 2,500 to 3,500 people and extending last call in bars — seemed to be motivated by the team's success.

"I worry sometimes if some of the decisions about the congregation of people within arenas is driven by sports passion, rather than by science,'' said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. "If the Montreal Canadiens weren't in the playoffs, would we be allowing this to occur? I'm not sure.''

Vinh said in an interview Tuesday he worries about the ability to maintain distancing and enforce mask-wearing in an arena. He said that if more fans are going to be allowed to attend, requiring proof of vaccination would make sense.

'Safe viewing areas'

Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said that without proper safety measures, increasing arena capacity has the potential to be a "superspreader'' event.

But, if steps are taken to mitigate risks, such as mandatory mask-wearing and the use of rapid tests, increased arena capacity — and the creation of other "safe viewing areas,'' such as in city parks — could be safer than the large unofficial gatherings that occur outside the arena on game nights.

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In particular, she said, having controlled viewings of the game would allow for contact tracing if someone is infected.

She said this is an opportunity for public health to say "we're going to do it in as safe a way as possible, because it's going to happen regardless,'' she said.

The team plans to show away games to 3,500 fans on the large screen inside the arena starting Wednesday.

Large groups of fans have gathered outside the arena during both home and away games to watch on screens inside nearby restaurants.