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Amalie Arena to gradually begin reopening to fans

The Lightning and Raptors hope to play games in front of limited capacity crowds in mid-March, but only if coronavirus numbers continue to trend downward.
The Lightning played the Nashville Predators inside an empty Amalie Arena in mid-January.
The Lightning played the Nashville Predators inside an empty Amalie Arena in mid-January. [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 11
Updated Feb. 11

TAMPA — Amalie Arena will begin to open up to a few hundred select fans for Lightning and Raptors games beginning next week, but the general public likely won’t be able to attend games in person until next month.

Starting with the Raptors’ home game Sunday and the Lightning’s game Monday at Amalie Arena, a limited number of family and friends will be allowed inside the building for games. The plan is for that to continue through March 2 for both Lightning and Raptors games while coronavirus cases continue to be monitored.

Ultimately, the aim is to allow more fans, approximately 3,800, into the arena sometime in mid-March. No specific dates have been announced, but the Lightning return home from a five-game road trip to play Nashville on March 13. The Raptors, who announced Thursday they will remain in Tampa through the remainder of the NBA season, have yet to announce their second-half schedule for games beyond March 4.

Related: Raptors remaining in Tampa through end of NBA season

The plan will allow Amalie Arena to have a soft opening for some fans while the teams monitor daily coronavirus numbers in Tampa and throughout Hillsborough County.

The largely maskless celebrations following the Bucs’ Super Bowl win Sunday are cause for concern, and there is a fear that numbers could spike in the next two weeks. Which is likely why Vinik Sports Group, which owns the Lightning and manages Amalie Arena, and the Raptors are waiting before finalizing the decision to allow more fans into the facility.

”We believe this prudent opening of Amalie Arena for NHL and NBA games will allow us to grant access to our season ticket members and other fans after March 2,” Vinik Sports Group said in a statement. “However, as previously stated, because of the fluidities of the pandemic, we are going to reserve the right to review COVID-19 trends over the coming weeks before making any final decisions regarding the return of hockey and basketball fans to the facility.

“The health, safety and well-being of our players, staff and guests will continue to remain at the forefront in our decision-making processes while we navigate this difficult time.”

Vinik Sports Group announced Jan. 9 its decision to shut down the arena to fans, citing a spike in coronavirus cases and positivity rates. At the time, the daily average of new cases had reached an all-time high in Hillsborough County.

The Raptors had played four games at the arena to a limited capacity of 3,800, and the Lightning initially planned to host a limited number, as well. Since the Raptors’ Jan. 4 game against the Celtics, the arena has been closed to spectators.

The Lightning, whose regular season opened on Jan. 13, have played their first six home games without fans. They unveiled their Stanley Cup banner on opening night but don’t plan on lifting it to the rafters until fans return to the building.

Since then, coronavirus numbers in the area have dropped by 50 percent. After consulting with local health partners, the Lightning developed a fluid plan to reopen the arena.

Amalie Arena was refitted to meet CDC coronavirus standards, which included new HVAC systems, signs on the ground 6 feet apart reminding fans to distance themselves in restrooms and concession areas, and new UV lighting to sanitize escalator guardrails.

Two days before the Super Bowl, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told The Tampa Bay Times that people continuing to wear masks would be a key factor in keeping numbers down and the decision to reopen the arena to fans.

“We’re hopeful a week or two from now we’ll start to slowly ramp up,” Vinik said at the time. “And hopefully in this whole region, hopefully people during this celebratory weekend both before and after the Bucs win, hopefully they can continue to wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as they can so we can keep these case numbers moving down. That’s really important.”

The first month of the NHL season has been played mostly without fans in the stands. Only three teams — the Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers — opened the season with fans in their arenas. In fact, this week’s games in Nashville were the Lightning’s first played in front of spectators this season.

“I think everyone needs to have fans, in general,” Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph said after Tampa Bay’s win Tuesday in Nashville. “There were 3,000-4,000 fans in the building the last two games. It was fun to play in front of people and having a little bit of energy in the building. ... I think every player in this league would tell you that we don’t just play for our teams. We play for fans and for the people that are there to cheer and support us.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.