Wade Miller has been rolling with the same playbook ever since the coronavirus pandemic first struck in early 2020. Continuing to follow the guidance of Manitoba Health officials, the Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO has made the decision to scrap the need for COVID-19 passports heading into a new football and soccer season.
Effective May 1, fans attending a Blue Bombers game or Valour FC match at IG Field will no longer need to show proof of vaccination. Miller said the club will continue to monitor the latest health protocols, but the hope is for the changes announced early Monday to stick in the coming weeks and months.
"We’ll continue to watch as we move on and see if we need to make any adjustments throughout the year," Miller said in a phone interview with the Free Press. "But for our fans, we’re going to go back to as normal as possible."
Still, some things remain in the works.
While staff working the games, either in concessions or retail, will still be required to wear masks, Miller has yet to make the decision on whether they’ll require employees to be vaccinated. For Valour’s home-opener on May 1, which is expected to draw around 3,500 fans, it’s all returning staff from last season, when it was mandatory for employees to be fully vaccinated.
Fans don’t have to wear masks, which they did last year. Miller believes this makes sense given IG Field is an outdoor venue. Instead, they’ll adopt a similar approach to the local professional hockey team, where masks are no longer mandatory — but encouraged — at Canada Life Centre, the home of the Winnipeg Jets.
There is at least one exception to Monday’s announcement. For private events at IG Field, whoever puts on the event will determine its vaccination policy.
“We’ll continue to watch as we move on and see if we need to make any adjustments throughout the year. But for our fans, we’re going to go back to as normal as possible.” — Wade Miller
Asked if he expected any backlash from fans over the changes, Miller said he and his staff will take any criticism in stride.
"In something like this, what we’ve seen in a society, is that there’s a lot of people that understand both sides. And I think there’s extremes on either side," Miller said. "Like the last time (when we mandated vaccine passports), we felt a little on the one side and we believed we were doing the right thing. We believe we’re doing the right thing now and we’ll deal with that."
Miller said any season-ticket holder that doesn’t feel comfortable with the change will be worked with individually and provided with options they’re most comfortable with. On the topic of season tickets, Miller wouldn’t divulge much on the team’s total count, only to say they’re "moving well" and that renewal rates from last season are above 90 per cent.
In seven games in 2021, the Bombers averaged 25,947 per games — 6,888 more fans than the CFL’s average last season. The current capacity at IG Field is 33,022.
He also made sure to remind fans that those who sign up for this season are still eligible to receive a replica 2021 Grey Cup ring. The Bombers will officially reveal the championship rings in a special dinner with players in late May, with a video then posted online over the club’s social media platforms.
Also, the team will be unveiling its third jersey on Thursday.
"I like that the jersey sticks with who we are in the colour," Miller said. "The Winnipeg Football Club is royal blue and that signifies the history and the direction forward. And that’s something I truly believe in."
By dropping proof of vaccination, the Bombers will no longer have to allocate close to 100 people, many of whom were volunteers, to check QR codes of fans. That should make for a more seamless entry into the stadium. The loosening of health protocols will also see the return of pre-game tailgating.
It’s still unclear what the protocols will be when it comes to vaccination status and COVID-19 testing for Bomber players. All players were required to test multiple times per week last season, with unvaccinated players unable to travel for road games.
Guidelines are still being determined by the CFL. As it stands, Valour players will only test when symptomatic, using an antigen rapid test.
Miller is looking forward to having a new season get underway. The Bombers open the 2022 campaign at home against the Ottawa Redblacks on June 10.
The Bombers will be aiming for a third straight Grey Cup title, which would make them the first to threepeat since Edmonton won five straight championships between 1978 and 1982.
"We did what we could in free agency. Good to see a lot of the core is back," Miller said. "Looking forward to having a normal training camp and getting everyone back, getting the players and coaches on the field. That’s what it’s about, and I’m looking forward to being able to watch practice this year."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.