Amidst spiking coronavirus case numbers and positivity rates throughout Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay area, the Lightning made the decision last month to open the hockey season without fans in the stands.
The Vinik Sports Group, which owns the Lightning and manages Amalie Arena, announced that the arena would not host fans at Lightning or Raptors games through at least Feb. 5. That will continue to be the case through the Lightning’s home games Wednesday and Friday against the Detroit Red Wings.
However, with trends starting to improve, it is likely fans will be back in the arena later this month provided the numbers continue to fall. An announcement on the Lightning’s plans is expected next week.
The team will be on the road next week, so its next home game after the Detroit series will be Feb. 15 against the Florida Panthers. That is the earliest possible date fans could be in the building.
The Raptors also play away from Tampa for most of the next two weeks. Their longest stretch of home games this month starts Feb. 21, when they are slated to play five of six games at Amalie.
Before Lightning ownership decided to close the arena to fans, it planned to allow no more than 4,000 into the stands to comply with social-distancing protocols. The Raptors played to a 3,800-fan maximum capacity for their first four games at Amalie — one preseason game and three regular-season games.
The Lightning were on pace to be one of four NHL teams (along with Arizona, Dallas and Florida) to open the season with fans in attendance. But in early January, coronavirus numbers hit all-time highs, and the team pivoted from its initial plan during the same week as it had its ticket rollout to season plan holders.
The Lightning made their announcement on Jan. 9, right as local cases were at their worst. For the week ending Jan. 8, there was an average of 1,085 new cases a day in Hillsborough County, most since the pandemic began in March.
Average weekly positive cases in Hillsborough County have dropped by half since then. The week ending Monday recorded an average of 529 new cases a day.
The Lightning have been evaluating the county and Tampa Bay area case and positivity trends while working with their health partners to devise a plan for when and how to reopen the arena moving forward. But the situation remains fluid, and if a sudden spike occurs again, their plans could change.
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Since the pandemic, Amalie Arena was retrofitted to meet all CDC standards, changes that include new HVAC systems, signs on the ground 6 feet apart reminding fans to distance themselves in restrooms and concession areas, and new UV lightning to sanitize escalator guardrails.
The Raptors, who are playing their home games in Tampa at least through March 5, were the first team to play at Amalie since the pandemic. Their preseason games had a soft opening, and their regular-season games had a maximum capacity of 3,800 fans.
Fans sat in pods of two and four seats and were instructed to wear masks at all times when not actively eating or drinking. Because of the zoning of the arena, most of the fans were sitting in the 300 level.
A limited-capacity comedy show, Mike Epps’ Super Comedy Jam, is scheduled for Saturday at the arena, but it’s uncertain whether that event will go on as planned. Tickets are still being sold for Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac’s concerts scheduled for Feb. 19 and 20.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.