TAMPA — When the Lightning host first-round playoff games in the coming days, the team will fill Amalie Arena to 37-percent capacity — or approximately 7,000 fans — its latest effort to open the facility to more fans in a safe manner.
With Florida opening up more, coronavirus cases declining and vaccination numbers rising, the hope is to increase capacity when games mean the most, especially for a fan base that didn’t get to see the Lightning’s run to last year’s Stanley Cup in person while the team played in the bubble in Canada.
“Between NHL approval, health officials approval and government approval, we feel very comfortable making sure that we have the safest and healthiest building in North America,” Lightning CEO Steve Griggs said. “All the policies and procedures and the whole, ‘Play It Safe’ program we’ve put into place have allowed us to be comfortable taking the next step. And obviously, the most important part is the mask policy, making sure people continue to wear masks, be safe and healthy.”
Right now, it’s likely that the Lightning’s first-round series would begin on May 15 or 16. If the Lightning have home-ice advantage, it would be May 15, because the NBA’s Raptors have a game at Amalie on May 16.
The increase in capacity is a big one, up from the 4,200 fans allowed in the building for the last few regular-season games, and there were many factors that went into arriving at the 37-percent number, from regular fan surveys to upgrading the facility’s HVAC systems. Capacity could increase through the playoffs as the Lightning advance.
Super Bowl 55 and WrestleMania 37 were recently held at Raymond James Stadium with capacity at around 37 to 38 percent. The Rays opened this season in front of 9,000 fans, un-tarping the upper deck at Tropicana Field to space out spectators at 25-percent capacity.
In the NHL, the Florida Panthers — the Lightning’s likely first-round opponent — have plans to increase capacity to 48 percent, or 9,000 fans, for their playoff games. The Dallas Stars were working to open their arena to full capacity if they made the postseason.
Lightning players who have spent the season playing in scattered or sometimes empty buildings are looking forward to having more fans in the stands for the playoffs.
“I think it’s gonna be great,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “I think it’s about that time now where we start getting fans back in the stands. In the beginning, it’s kind of weird, we’re just so used to no fans. What are we at, 4K in the stands now? So, it feels like it’s a packed house. So I can only imagine what 37-percent capacity is gonna feel like.”
Gauging the fans
The Lightning have been sending out surveys to season ticket holders since the pause and recently asked fans how comfortable they would be not only returning to the arena for the postseason but also sitting in pods closer together. To account for more fans in the building, pods will be between 4½ to 5 feet apart instead of 6 feet for the first round of the playoffs.
“There is a high level of comfort, especially since 1.) a lot of people are vaccinated, 2.) people are still wearing their masks,” Griggs said of the fan feedback. “And we’ve also set up the (seating) grids where there’s no back-to-backs and we skip seats. So with all of those things, we really created the grid within the building in order to make sure people feel safe and healthy and protected.”
The Lightning’s “Play It Safe” initiative, in place since the arena opened to fans in February, included signage reminding fans of social-distancing and mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing stations and touch-free ticketing, concessions and restrooms for both Lightning and Raptors games held at the arena.
The Lightning spoke with the state’s other indoor teams, the Panthers, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic about their reopening plans, and because Amalie Arena is hosting the Raptors, they were able to utilize both NHL and NBA research in making the facility as safe as possible.
Being in a hot-weather state allows the Lightning to meet NHL standards for HVAC system airflow that permits the team to expand its arena’s capacity for the postseason.
Amalie Arena’s HVAC system normally runs at 105,000 cubic feet per minute (the amount of outdoor air that is moving through the building), but with it getting hotter and more humid, every season additional HVAC upgrades are made to help maintain the ice quality. That’s allowed the Lightning to upgrade the airflow to 175,000 cfm, which meets the NHL requirements for allowing 7,100 fans into the building for games.
“We’re getting a full review not only from the NHL on that, but we submit that through all of our engineering consultants that we work with to make sure that it has that type of airflow for the building,” Griggs said. “That is important, obviously, for having more people in the building.”
Outside the arena, the Lightning plan to allow fans back to Thunder Alley in a setup similar setup to last year’s postseason, with fans sitting in distanced pods and wearing masks.
Thunder Alley will open three hours before game time. Metal detectors will be moved outside the plaza to create a more secure environment and provide more space and help with a safe entrance flow into the arena.
Room to grow
The Lightning will continue to review trends weekly and work with local health and government officials, as well as the league, to gauge whether the capacity can continue to be increased as the postseason progresses. Asked whether getting to 50-percent capacity is possible this postseason, Griggs said it’s too soon to say.
“Our hope is — and as we all know we were trying to get back to normal as quickly as possible here — but obviously we want people to continue to get vaccinated and cases to continue to go in the right direction,” Griggs said “But for now, we’ll be cautious and make sure we’re doing it in the right manner in order to make sure that everyone is safe and healthy and that, obviously, our health and county officials and the NHL are in line with what we’re doing.”
Despite Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order this week suspending local pandemic-related restrictions such as mask mandates, Griggs said the Lightning will continue with their mask policy, which requires all fans in the building to wear masks unless they are actively eating or drinking.
“We would really ask our fans to be compliant to it,” Griggs said, “because it creates a safe and healthy environment and hopefully that allows us to then bring even more fans into the building.”
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