The Tampa Bay Lightning were awarded the Stanley Cup inside a heavily sanitized bubble in Canada on Monday, and now the team heads home to fans who will cheer them wildly — from a safe distance.
There will be a boat parade and a fan rally in Tampa on Wednesday, where fans are cautioned to follow proper social-distancing guidelines and wear face masks. Public health experts warn that those precautions are still a priority.
“Although we are very excited and many us have been waiting for another Stanley Cup for a long time, this is not a time to let our guard down with regards to the tactics that have gotten us where we are today,” said Dr. Patrick Mularoni, a pediatric sports and emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “We need to continue to remember that while we may be outside, we may be closer to other people when you cannot maintain that 6-foot distance, so you need to be masked.”
Health researchers have warned that the coronavirus infections that overwhelmed hospitals in some countries were driven by mass gatherings such as horse races in Britain, a soccer match in Italy and a carnival in Germany.
The Lightning won 16 games, plus two in the qualification round, all while living away from family and friends in a hotel for 65 days. They were able to hug and high-five and pile on top of each other after Monday night’s win. It’s unlikely that the crowds gathered outside Amalie Arena followed the same protocols.
“I think the fans should take notice of the incredible sacrifice the team made to protect the players," said Dr. Jay Wolfson, professor of public health at the University of South Florida. “We should respect what the team went through in all those weeks and months in order for us to enjoy the glory of their win.”
In Bergamo, Italy, the 40,000 bouncing, hugging soccer fans excited by Atalanta’s 4-1 win over Valencia on Feb. 19 is now considered by experts as the catalyst that turned Lombardy into one of the worst-hit regions for COVID-19 infections on the planet. At least 35 percent of the Valencia team tested positive upon its return to Spain.
The methods the city of Tampa and the team are using for fan celebrations are in line with public health advice about best practices, Mularoni said.
The Lightning will be at a safe distance at Wednesday’s boat parade, to be held at 5 p.m. at the city of Tampa Riverwalk on the Hillsborough River. Fans are encouraged to exercise proper social-distancing guidelines and to wear face coverings. Boats unaffiliated with the parade can be on the water, but they’re not allowed to follow along.
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“We’re going to rely on people being responsible citizens,” Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said at a news conference Tuesday. When asked what enforcement would look like on the Riverwalk, he reminded people to wear masks and social distance while watching the boat parade. “We’re going to have our hands full tomorrow.”
A fan rally will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Wednesday. Fans will be screened and masks will be required in the stadium at all times, unless actively eating or drinking in your seat. Pod seating will be in place to allow groups of one to six people at a time to sit together while physically distanced from others.
“Having an outside boat parade where there is a large distance is much better than a typical parade where you are standing five and six deep,” Mularoni said. “Families need to know if they arrive and people are starting to stack up, it’s not a good idea to get close, chest-to-back on the Riverwalk. The idea is to have it over a large distance so people can spread out.”
Dr. Wolfson thought the boat parade was a good idea as long as fans maintain their distance along the Riverwalk. And at Raymond James Stadium, they will need to be most mindful to wear masks and keep their distance at entry and exit points, while waiting in lines and in the concourse. He said the team has done their part.
“We should respect their sacrifice and be responsible and exercise common sense so we don’t leave a residual trail of illness in our community," Wolfson said. "We can do this right.”
Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this story.