Melnyk pitches, then backtracks on bid to bring fans back to CTC
'That time is not now,' Ottawa Senators owner says after tweeting details of 'robust public safety plan'
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk tweeted on Tuesday that it's time to allow fans to attend home games at Canadian Tire Centre (CTC) despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but later backtracked, saying "that time is not now."
The shortened NHL season opens Wednesday night, with all seven Canadian teams in one division and only playing each other, avoiding cross-border travel. Ottawa's first game is at home on Friday.
Around noon, Melnyk announced in a tweet that he had "submitted" a plan to welcome back about 6,000 fans, using about one-third of the arena's seats. Melnyk said his "robust public safety plan" includes "health protocols ranging from proper physical distancing, rapid testing and mask-wearing at all times" inside CTC.
He deleted the tweet just over an hour later.
In a statement released on his website later Tuesday afternoon, Melnyk said the Senators are committed to developing a plan to help fans attend games in person, "but only when the time is right."
"That time is not now," the statement reads. "Given the ongoing increase in daily COVID-19 cases ... we understand as an organization that we must do our part to control this virus before we can entertain plans to bring fans back into our arena."
"I appreciate Mr. Melnyk saying that," said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson in response to the Senators owner's latest statement.
"I think most people would agree cramming 6,000 people in one confined space is not a good idea at this time," Watson said during a news conference Tuesday.
None of the seven Canadian teams will have any fans inside arenas to start the season. Last week, the Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs got provincial approval to play games in their empty arenas.
WATCH | Ottawa's mayor and top doctor comment after Senators owner backtracks on his request:
Currently in Ontario, indoor organized public events and social gatherings are not allowed except with members of the same household.
Public health officials said Tuesday the province is at a dangerous point in the pandemic, with the spectre of more contagious coronavirus variants driving numbers higher and filling hospitals with patients.
Up to Ontario's top doctor, OPH says
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said Tuesday that even if Melnyk's plan is approved, the final decision on whether fans can safely return to Canadian Tire Centre rests with Ottawa Public Health.
But Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches explained that professional sports falls under provincial regulations. During the news conference Tuesday, she said if Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams approves the plan, sports organizations can move forward.
Etches said she reviewed and approved a plan locally, but it only pertained to employees and team members.
"That plan I saw did not involve fans," she said.
WATCH | Fan decision will be made at local level, says Dr. Howard Njoo:
The NHL expects three American teams — the Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes — to begin the season with a limited number of fans in their respective arenas.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins are other potential candidates, while the Tampa Bay Lightning have the OK from local authorities, but announced over the weekend they'll play in front of an empty building for the foreseeable future.
The league relies on fans attending games for roughly 50 per cent of its traditional revenue. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday the league expects to suffer billion-dollar losses this year.
With files from The Canadian Press