Several hundred fully vaccinated health-care workers will be allowed into Bell MTS Place to watch the Winnipeg Jets in their upcoming Stanley Cup playoff series.
The Jets face off against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the second-round series Wednesday night.
Provincial public health orders prohibit gatherings of any kind. But the Jets announced via Twitter that 500 health-care workers who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 will be allowed in to watch Games 1 and 2 of the series. Bell MTS Place can seat up to 16,345 fans.
The move comes as Manitoba continues to report high COVID-19 case counts and transmission rates, while hospitals try to get a handle on a record number of COVID-19 ICU patients — a couple dozen of whom have had to be transferred to other provinces.
Prior to the Jets' announcement, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister addressed the news at a media briefing Tuesday afternoon when a CBC reporter asked if he thought having fans in the stands would be appropriate.
WATCH | Pallister on allowing fans at the next Jets game:
"Yeah," he responded. "I think there will be some fans, a small number, a few, in the next Jets game."
A short time later, a provincial health official confirmed that "a very limited number" of fans would be allowed in the stadium to root for the Jets for the first time since the NHL paused its 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pallister said allowing fans to attend is an optimistic sign "that we can start to get our lives back here in Manitoba."
Fans attended the Bell Centre in Montreal to watch Game 6 between the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday after the Quebec government loosened restrictions to allow 2,500 people inside the 21,302-seat arena.
It was the first time a Canadian NHL team had fans inside their home arena since the league paused its 2019-20 season.
Ontario responded two days later, allowing 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend Monday's Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
'It just doesn't seem like the right time'
The Jets' playoff success thus far is some much needed good news for the province, but Tuesday's announcement is "tone deaf," said Glen Drobot, a general internist who mainly works at St. Boniface and Grace hospitals in Winnipeg.
Health-care workers were among the very first groups of people prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine when rollout began in December.
But Manitoba has a 12 per cent five-day COVID-19 test-positivity rate — 13.5 per cent in Winnipeg. There are 305 people in hospital due to the illness, including 109 in critical care — 76 patients are in Manitoba hospitals, 33 in Ontario and Saskatchewan.
Nurses across the province are combating COVID-19 while working without a contract and there may be a strike vote looming.
Manitobans are also under the strictest provincial public health restrictions to date because of the pandemic's third wave.
"It just doesn't seem like the right time, because we're not at the end," said Drobot. "We're not in a period of celebration yet."
Drobot questions what defines "health-care workers" — which he says is a broad term — and how their vaccination status will be verified. He also wonders what the intention is behind allowing fully vaccinated people into the stadium, and whether it is to act as incentive for others to be vaccinated.
Letting some health-care workers watch the games in person also feels like an extension of the "health-care heroes" concept, which, in this case, is providing a certain group of front-line workers privilege over others such as teachers and grocery store workers, he said.
Drobot said he would prefer to see a more equitable way to acknowledge those efforts.
The 500 health-care workers for Game 1 will be chosen by lottery, according to an email to health-care workers obtained by CBC News through a Manitoba Shared Health spokesperson
To be eligible, health-care workers must have a current health system photo ID, be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and be willing to show proof of vaccination status prior to entering Bell MTS Place, the email says. They must also be in Winnipeg by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Winners will be picked by noon Wednesday and the single-seat tickets will be issued that afternoon via email.
Masks must be worn at all times in the stadium and concessions will not be open.
Information about tickets for Game 2, which is on Friday, will be shared in the coming days, the email says.