The California Department of Public Health’s announcement that it will allow indoor venues across much of the state — including sports arenas — to host events with a limited amount of spectators later this month was welcomed by San Jose Sharks players and coaches.
The department’s decision, made public Friday, gives the go-ahead for the Sharks and the state’s other NHL teams, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, to potentially open their doors to a limited number of fans for indoor games starting April 15.
The Sharks have eight regular-season home games left after that date, with the NHL playoffs beginning shortly after the end of the regular season in the second week of May. The Sharks, who play the Kings tonight, are in sixth place in the West Division, three points out of a playoff spot, with 20 games remaining.
A Sharks spokesman said the team would need to review the recently released state guidance for indoor venues and “will be communicating any potential SAP Center reopening plans with fans once finalized.” A Santa Clara County spokesman said the state’s rules would apply.
As of Friday, Santa Clara County was operating in the orange tier. In that tier, capacity is limited to 10% or 2,000 people, and capacity increases to 35% if all guests are tested or show proof of full vaccination. SAP Center’s seating capacity for hockey is 17,562.
For counties in the most restrictive purple tier, indoor sporting events will not be allowed. In the next-highest red tier, events will be allowed at 10-20% capacity depending on the size of the venue. Capacity limits increase in the orange and yellow tiers.
“It’s very quiet in there for our players, it’s very quiet for the coaches and to have people in there will be exciting,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. “I know there’s a lot of things that need to still happen before that becomes a reality. From our point of view, if we can keep a healthy atmosphere and get people back and enjoy it, I mean, that’s what it’s all about.”
Sharks captain Logan Couture said players had previously requested to have family members, wives, and girlfriends allowed into SAP Center for home games.
“Definitely not the same when (fans) aren’t there,” Couture said. “That’s out of our control. Hopefully, everybody can get it figured out and we can have some of our fans at some point during the season.”
The Sharks, Kings, and Ducks were among the last few U.S.-based NHL teams that were not allowed to have at least some spectators inside buildings. The Colorado Avalanche became the latest NHL team to host fans earlier this week. The Minnesota Wild will begin to host up to 3,000 fans per game next week.
As of now, the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals are the only other U.S.-based teams in the league to not be able to host at least a limited number of fans, to have government clearance to do so soon. All seven Canadian teams are also not allowed to have fans.
The Sharks have recently played in buildings in Arizona and Las Vegas where a limited number of spectators, between 3,000 and 3,500, have been present at each venue. When the Sharks played the Golden Knights on March 15 and 17 at T-Mobile Arena, attendance was capped at 3,473, or roughly 20 percent of the building’s 17,500-seat capacity for hockey.
“That was kind of the moment for me where, coming on the ice for warm-up, it was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re back playing in the NHL again,’” Couture said. “There’s people and it’s loud and you feel normal to a degree. Most warmups, you come out and the music’s really quiet and all you can hear is the puck hitting the boards. So, definitely adds some atmosphere and builds some energy into the arena.”
The last Sharks home game with fans present was on March 8, 2020 near the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as attendance for that game with Colorado was announced at 14,694. The Sharks were sharply criticized by health experts for holding the game with fans in attendance.
When new guidelines for outdoor events were announced late last month, the state health department’s wording on indoor events said, in part, “Virus particles can travel more than six feet in indoor spaces and remain suspended in air even after an infected person has left the room.
“Indoor settings pose a much higher risk of transmission than outdoor settings. When an infected person does certain activities, such as singing or chanting, loud talking, or heavy breathing, for example with exercise, it can further increase risk compared to normal breathing and talking.”
Friday, California reported nearly 4,000 new COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day total since March 9. The state now has a seven-day average of 2,643 daily cases, the highest the average has been since March 15.
Santa Clara County reported 169 new cases on Friday and seven deaths, for a total of 114,852 cases and 1,949 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.
Still, hospitalization rates in California for people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the number of patients in intensive care unit beds with confirmed cases, continue to decline.
“Most of the teams in the league have fans in the stands, and you can feel them in the stands,” Sharks winger Rudolfs Balcers. “If we can get some people in the stands back home, it would be awesome.”
Presently, anyone 50 or older in California is eligible to be vaccinated, and that access will expand to anyone 16 years or older on April 15.
NHL players are not required to get vaccinated, as per the league’s agreement with the NHL Players’ Association, but Boughner hopes everybody gives it serious consideration. He pointed to the Vancouver Canucks’ situation, where reportedly 16 players are now on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list, and three coaches are also affected.
“I’m hoping that when we’re eligible that we get our vaccines,” Boughner said. “You see what’s happening with some other teams, in Vancouver. We want to stay healthy number one and to be able to complete the season in a timely manner.”
San Jose Sharks comment on potentially having fans back inside SAP Center