As many as 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers will be in the stands when the Winnipeg Jets host the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night for Game 1 of the NHL's northern division playoffs.
At a news conference to mark the end of the spring sitting of the legislature Tuesday, and to herald his government's accomplishments, Premier Brian Pallister said there will be a "small number of fans — a few — at the next Jets game."
Game onClick to Expand
In an email circulated to health-care workers, True North Sports and Entertainment said masks must be worn throughout the game and concession stands will be closed. It asked interested health-care workers to reply to the email if they want to attend the game, and said the 500 fans would be chosen by lottery by noon Wednesday. Attendees must present a current health system photo ID and must have received both doses of vaccine, with the second shot having been received more then 14 days ago. Each person must be willing to show proof of vaccination status.
A short time later, a statement from the provincial government made it official.
"We can confirm that, for the first time in over a year, a very limited number of fans will be present to cheer on the Winnipeg Jets (Wednesday) night," the statement said.
"More details will be announced soon, but the province is pleased that some very deserving Manitobans will be at Bell MTS Place as the Jets take on the Montreal Canadiens."
True North Sports and Entertainment said up to 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers would attend each game, on Wednesday and Friday, for free.
Pallister said he's not worried about the spread of COVID-19 at the games, despite current public health orders that ban such gatherings.
"I know they'll be safe, and I know they'll be careful, and I know they'll follow public health rules," the premier said.
He was asked if it's appropriate to let fans attend NHL games in Winnipeg when the health-care system is so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that Manitoba has to send ICUs patients out-of-province on a daily basis.
Allowing a few fans to be in attendance and cheer on their hometown pro hockey team could boost this province's pandemic-battered morale, Pallister said.
"I think we should take that as a sign of a small amount of optimism that we can start to get our lives back here in Manitoba," he said.
Montreal welcomed 2,500 spectators to Bell Centre on Saturday when the Canadians hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs had 550 vaccinated front-line workers in Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Monday after the province initially balked at the idea.
Manitoba has been in code red since November; stricter public health restrictions have been put in place in recent weeks to prevent people from gathering with anyone outside their household, with few exceptions. When asked on Monday if Winnipeg Jets fans may soon see a home game in person, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin was non-committal, but pointed out that Winnipeg's COVID-19 trajectory is different from Toronto or Montreal where the third wave crested sooner.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Tuesday that making sure there's enough staff to care for critically ill Manitobans should be the government's priority.
"I think that we're going to have to get answers on what's going on with the staffing in the ICU situation," Kinew said when asked if he supported fans being allowed to attend Jets games despite Manitoba's COVID-19 case numbers remaining high.
"I'd have to see details about what the province is thinking about before I could comment, but it seems to me that ICUs, ICUs, ICUs — that should be the No. 1 priority."
Acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen said on social media that he supports the plan because Public Health believes it is safe, it’s a small recognition that health-care workers deserve and "it’s another step back towards normal."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.