TAMPA — The Lightning were one of just four NHL teams set to open the season allowing limited fan attendance at home games. Less than a week before Tampa Bay’s regular-season opener, the team has pivoted.
Due to rising coronavirus numbers in Hillsborough County and the surrounding area — Tampa Bay added 3,487 cases and 24 deaths Friday — Vinik Sports Group, which owns the Lightning and operates Amalie Arena, announced Saturday that the team will hold off on that plan. The Toronto Raptors, who have been calling Tampa their temporary home this NBA season, also will start playing in an empty arena. Amalie will remain closed to the public at least through Feb. 5.
The Lightning planned to open the season against Chicago on Wednesday with around 3,900-4,000 fans — roughly 23 percent of the seating capacity at Amalie Arena. Other teams couldn’t open home arenas because of state and local regulations during the pandemic. The Panthers, Stars and Coyotes are the other three who plan to try to play in front of limited crowds.
Plans recently went on sale to Lightning season ticket holders, but the demand exceeded the supply, and roughly half were able to purchase season tickets. The final stage of the team’s ticket rollout — selling leftover single-game seats to the general public — was scheduled for this morning.
Those who were able to purchase tickets will be contacted about options for refunds or account credits.
“We have worked tirelessly, putting every safety measure possible in place at Amalie Arena. However, as we review current data and COVID-19 modeling for the next few weeks in the Tampa Bay area, we do not believe it is prudent to admit fans inside the arena at this time,” said Steve Griggs, CEO for Vinik Sports Group, the Lightning and Amalie Arena, in a statement. “Please note the decision to close Amalie Arena was made internally, without direction from local health or government officials.”
Fans were to socially distance in pods of two and four seats, wear masks at all times when not actively eating or drinking, and Amalie Arena was refitted to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols. The modifications were detailed, down to signs reminding fans to stay apart and UV lightning to sanitize escalator guardrails.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup while playing in a bubble, so they are used to competing in empty arenas. But they were looking forward to bringing their fans back to open this season.
“We’ve got to hold on a little bit longer,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “...(For the fans) not to be a part of what we went through in the bubble and now when the season starts, and even albeit it was going to be 25 percent capacity, for them not to be there, it stings for them. And we understand that because we love playing in front of our fans.”
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Outside Amalie Arena on Saturday morning, new Lightning banners were hung along the building’s facade. Inside, the team practiced for the first time on home ice after starting training camp at the TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
But with coronavirus cases rising to record numbers — Florida’s positivity rate was 13.89 percent this week, and the state announced 19,530 new cases Friday and 194 deaths, while 283,204 new cases and a record 3,456 deaths were reported nationwide — the team decided it could not continue on the path to allow fans.
“Our health care agency partners and the local governments have helped ensure that AMALIE Arena is as safe and healthy as possible, but because of the increasing numbers and the rising positivity rates we are not comfortable bringing large numbers of fans indoors to watch hockey or basketball right now,” Griggs said in the statement. “We are hopeful to reopen the arena soon after we see declining rates and better overall numbers.”
Without fans onsite for their nationally-televised opener, the team will decide over the next few days whether to still have a Stanley Cup banner raising ceremony before the game.
On Friday, the Lightning learned that two of their first three opponents are dealing with coronavirus outbreaks. The Stars, who were supposed to play in Tampa on Jan. 17 and 19, had six players and two coaches test positive. The league said Dallas would not open its season until at least Jan. 19 and its schedule will be adjusted. There’s been no word on if that game will still be against the Lightning.
The Blue Jackets, who are supposed to host the Lightning on Jan. 21 and 23, also had 19 players sit out of practice “out of an abundance of caution and in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols.” Eighteen returned the next day.
And the league continued to deal with COVID-19 issues Saturday, when the Pittsburgh Penguins canceled practice due to coronavirus concerns.
The Raptors played their first four home games — three regular-season and one preseason — at Amalie Arena in front of fewer than 4,000 people. Like the NHL, they were one of the few NBA teams that opened the season with fans.
The Raptors only sold seats through Jan. 31, so the eight remaining home games will be refunded through point of purchase.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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