Inside the NHL
Anyone truly surprised by the Kraken’s decision Tuesday to allow only fully vaccinated fans ages 12 and over into games at Climate Pledge Arena hasn’t been paying attention.
The Kraken for weeks had telegraphed this move with all the subtlety of a Mark Giordano slap shot from the point. The team’s higher-ups let it be known they were mulling a full-on vaccination policy and in years past haven’t hesitated in being out front on other social and public issues.
“I just think all of our leadership got together, and we thought that this was the best thing for our fans,” said Don Graham, a senior vice president for the arena and the Oak View Group (OVG) company that’s spearheading its $1 billion-plus overhaul. “The last thing we wanted to do is revert back to (COVID-19) setbacks and limited capacity. We thought this was the ‘best practices’ approach we should be taking.”
Seattle-based Graham, who leads a COVID-19 arena task force locally and at OVG venues nationwide, said the team heard from fans on the vaccination issue. The new rules apply to NHL games, concerts and all other arena events, where all patrons for now also must wear a mask inside.
“It was more just our customers asking us,” Graham said. “A lot of the correspondence and emails I saw is they would be more comfortable if we had a vaccine requirement of everybody.”
Until the San Jose Sharks announced a similar vaccination mandate last month, the only NHL teams taking that step had been Canadian franchises in Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Locally, the Seahawks, Sounders, Storm and Mariners quickly followed the Kraken’s lead with their own vaccination requirement pronouncements.
But those teams, unlike the Kraken, gave fans an out: They can also gain entry by producing a recent negative COVID-19 test. A big difference is those teams have either started their seasons or, in the Seahawks’ case, are about to and it’s too late to mandate vaccines-only without having fans miss games.
I’ve little doubt they’d be mimicking the Kraken’s approach if their seasons were six weeks away.
Instead, the Kraken is going a step further and says it made the announcement now to give fans time to get fully vaccinated by the Oct. 23 home opener against the Vancouver Canucks. Vaccines also will be required to attend the team’s training camp at the Community Iceplex at Northgate Mall, as well as three home preseason games in Spokane, Kent and Everett.
Graham did say the team will allow some unvaccinated fans into games with a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours beforehand, but only if approved in advance for exemptions on legitimate medical or religious grounds. My key word there is “legitimate” — meaning, this isn’t a cue for fans to suddenly find religion, or for every politicized physician assistant to start handing out doctor’s notes to anti-vaxxers through social media crowdsourcing.
Already on Tuesday, my email inbox received missives from the usual self-proclaimed patriots and freedom fighters arguing it isn’t up to the Kraken to decide whose religious and medical concerns are legit. To that, I’d suggest the Kraken can indeed bar any fan from Climate Pledge Arena that it considers a threat to public safety.
This goes beyond the “No shirt, no shoes, no service” policy restaurants have used for decades. With COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations involving multiple variants on the rise — primarily among the unvaccinated — the Kraken isn’t about to play games with those trying to game the system.
The NHL has seen two seasons disrupted by COVID-19. The Kraken and its intertwined OVG arena developer — with $650 million invested in the franchise, another $1 billion in Climate Pledge and $80 million in the Community Iceplex — must see as many games played before as many fans as possible to recoup money.
They can’t, as Graham noted, afford COVID setbacks that limit crowd sizes, or — as happened locally last year — prevent fans from entering venues.
Most religions do not hold specific objections to vaccines.
And valid medical exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines typically involve “contraindications” — reasons not to administer a product — as defined by the Food & Drug Administration with guidance from medical groups. For the Pfizer vaccine, the only contraindications listed by the FDA is anyone with a history of severe allergic reaction to a specific ingredient within the vaccine.
Graham said anyone wanting an exemption can soon file an “appeal” through an online portal still being set up. The number of approved appeals isn’t expected to be high.
“We’re still working on what the exemptions are,” Graham said, adding that it will closely follow government-issued recommendations on the subject. “That’s the challenge we all face and right now, the discussions are still ongoing.”
But between the additional masking requirements and the arena’s top-end ventilation system, he doesn’t feel allowing a tiny number of exempted fans in among the vaccinated would put anyone at undue risk.
That same online platform for appeals will also allow fans to upload proof of vaccination ahead of games. Then, once at the arena, they’ll gain quick entry through a smartphone application recognizing their preapproved status.
Graham also isn’t worried about arena employees facing backlash from fans denied access for lacking vaccination proof, saying such workers commonly deal with counterfeit tickets and other issues that cause entry hassles. The team is discussing additional protocols, such as a security perimeter, to weed out such fans before they get too close to arena doors.
Not everyone will like the new rules, naturally. But this is where we’re at in a country wanting to reopen for business and sports during a pandemic showing few signs of going away.
In cases of life and death, smaller individual freedoms have long been superseded for the common good of public health. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, start your car while drunk or smoke in restaurants, either.
And now, you can’t attend Kraken games unless fully vaccinated against a coronavirus reported to have killed more than 650,000 people in this country. But hey, at least you can attend. That’s better than where our local teams were a year ago and Kraken officials are certainly holding their collective breath hoping nothing more drastic is needed.