Surging COVID cases prompt experts to call for crowd restrictions at Ontario pro sports events

Fans filled Scotiabank Arena on Saturday to catch the Maple Leafs, and then again Monday to cheer on the Raptors.

And as tens of thousands of people gathered for the two games, daily COVID-19 case counts in Toronto and across the province were quickly climbing, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The surge of cases has some experts calling for restrictions to crowds at professional sporting events in Ontario, with one suggesting capacity limits and the elimination of concession stands. Others said fans shouldn’t be in the stands at all.

Amid these calls, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer for health, said his team was reviewing its policy. The review will be presented to Doug Ford’s provincial government for options. Moore said he expected further news to be announced later this week, while urging seniors and immunocompromised people to avoid mass gatherings.

The provincial ministry of health did not return the Star’s request for comment Tuesday.

Ontario absolutely needs to restrict capacity limits “relatively dramatically” in places where there are large crowds and where people don’t wear masks consistently or properly, said Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of Ontario’s independent volunteer science table.

Concession stands also need to be closed, Jüni said, so people are required to wear their masks throughout their visit, with no interruptions for eating or drinking.

“The point is that people who are fully vaccinated, if their second dose of the vaccine is more than three months ago, they will be nearly as probable to get infected as people who are not vaccinated,” Jüni said. “The difference is that they most likely will continue to be relatively well-protected against hospitalizations and ICU admissions but they will now contribute to the train of transmission and we need to be aware of that.”

Checking vaccine certificates and rolling out COVID-19 booster shots as quickly as possible are not enough to protect against Omicron, said Jüni, who also called for capacity restrictions in restaurants, bars and clubs. Ventilation must be optimal and crowding needs to be avoided in public settings, Jüni said.

“Full capacity is not compatible, in the situation we’re in, in keeping the more closed spaces — such as the washrooms, corridors, etc. — safe,” Jüni said.

Others, like Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and a member of the science table, feel Ontario passed the point of capacity limits when it comes to sports.

“Professional sports should be, sadly, competing without fans,” Morris wrote in an email to the Star.

Morris said Ontario needs to slow down Omicron transmission to allow more booster doses to get in arms, because, based on the best evidence currently available, a third dose of vaccine reduces the risk of symptomatic disease “substantially.”

Given the current COVID-19 situation in the province, he said, and until the scientific community has a better understand of the severity of illness in cases caused by the variant, as well as what kind of strain Omicron will put on the health-care system, professional sports in Ontario should be played behind closed doors.

A spokesperson for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, parent company of the Raptors and Leafs, said it continues to consult closely with all levels of government and public health officials to “proactively determine any actions, including the potential timing of those actions, that might be required to protect the in-venue environment for all attendees and the community at large in the weeks and months to come.”

Fans at Scotiabank Arena with questions or concerns about the venue’s mask policy are encouraged to speak to an usher or use the in-stadium text message program that provides instant access to fan services staff from anywhere in the building, the MLSE spokesperson said.

Fans who were at the Raptors game versus the Washington Wizards on Dec. 5 were asked last week to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, after several cases were linked to a charity event hosted by Toronto president Masai Ujiri that included a stop, for some attendees, at the game.


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