The Winnipeg Football Club is banking on the COVID-19 pandemic improving enough this spring to allow the team to play in front of thousands of fans in fewer than five months.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are slated to open the 2021 Canadian Football League season at home against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 10.
That is 140 days away.
Football club president and CEO Wade Miller said he's confident Manitoba will allow outdoor gatherings to increase over that timeframe from the current maximum of five people to thousands of fans in the stands at Investors Group Field.
"In November, before vaccinations, before drugs were approved, we were very hopeful that we would be able to have fans back. Now you're seeing vaccinations roll out and and there's still a lot of time," Miller said Wednesday in an interview.
CFL slated to return after pandemic hiatus
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the CFL, which relies more on ticket revenue than do other professional sports leagues, to cancel its 2020 season. This year's season was announced in November, which turned out to be the worst month of the pandemic in Manitoba.
Code red restrictions imposed on the province in November are only slated to be relaxed now, more than two months later, starting with the tentative return of retail sales, hair salons and small household gatherings on Saturday.
Miller said he is optimistic restrictions will recede more rapidly over the coming months, especially with vaccinations underway.
The pace of immunizations has been slow in Manitoba, which plans to vaccinate 70 per cent of the adult population before the start of 2022.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has repeatedly promised every Canadian who wants a shot will get one by the fall.
"I'm going to listen to our prime minister that people could be vaccinated by September and everybody could get a shot that wants one," Miller said.
"So I'm going to be very positive that we're going to be able to get back on the field with our fans in the stands, like our schedule is right now."
Large gatherings likely last to resume
The Bombers last played in Winnipeg during the regular season in 2019, weeks before their Grey Cup victory in Calgary.
Public health officials, including Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, have repeatedly warned that gatherings the size of sporting events will likely be last aspect of pre-pandemic life to resume.
The Winnipeg Jets, for example, are not expecting any fans in the stands at Bell MTS Place at any point during the 2021 season, which started last week.
Spectator sports do not just pose a transmission risk. They complicate contact-tracing efforts.
Football games, for example, draw fans from all over the province and sometimes beyond, University of Manitoba community health sciences professor Dan Chateau pointed out last year.
"You don't want those people to go back to their communities and eventually spread COVID-19 again through each of their individual spheres of social contact," Chateau said in an interview in April, when the pandemic was one month old.
Miller said it's too early to entertain the possibility public health authorities won't allow fans in the stands at Investors Group Field in June.
"It's January. You know we still have a lot of months ahead of us," he said. "Right now, we have to focus on stomping down the virus."
Pandemic-proofing planned for stadium
Miller said the football club is planning to make Investors Group Field more safe from a public-health standpoint. The Bombers are also preparing for the prospect of public health allowing the stadium to open at a reduced capacity.
"We're contingency planning all the time and looking at every scenario and how we physically distance in the stadium," Miller said, adding the club is looking at reducing touch points and finding ways to keep fans apart as they enter and exit Investors Group Field.
Dr. Jillian Horton, a hospital-based Winnipeg internist who was among hundreds of doctors who advocated for tougher pandemic restrictions in the fall, said she can't envision stadium-sized gatherings in the near future.
"I struggle to imagine a scenario where hundreds or thousands of people in the stands is either possible or desirable," Horton said in an interview.
"I relate to the deep desire people have to see these normal landmarks and milestones come back into our lives," she added. "I don't know how much more disappointment we want to set ourselves up for here.
"A much slower, smaller, incremental rise in expectations may be a better idea."