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Lakers to begin title defence without fans, Thunder roll out welcome mat

Reigning NBA champion the Los Angeles Lakers have announced their games at Staples Center will be held without fans until further notice, while the Oklahoma City Thunder have detailed plans to have a “limited number of fans and guests” at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The announcements come after the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) this week reached an agreement in principle on the start of the 2020-21 season, which is set to commence on a shortened basis on December 22.

The 2020-21 season will feature each team playing a 72-game schedule, down from the traditional 82 games, with the full regular-season and broadcast schedules to be released at a future date. The agreement is subject to a vote by the league’s Board of Governors, but approval is expected to be a formality.

The NBA will need to focus on addressing multiple challenges as the league emerges from the bubble it was forced to end the 2019-20 season in, and teams return to playing in their home arenas. The Lakers made their decision on fan attendance yesterday (Wednesday), citing the guidance of state and local health officials.

The Lakers said: “The health and safety of our fans, players, staff and community are our main priority and we will continue to work with state and local officials to come up with a plan to safely welcome fans back to Staples Center in adherence with local, state, and NBA guidelines.

“We appreciate your continued support and look forward to coming together, when it is safe to do so, to celebrate the raising of our banner and the quest for another NBA championship.”

The last NBA game to be held at Staples Center was on March 10, one day prior to the league’s COVID-19 shutdown. The Los Angeles Clippers, which share Staples Center with the Lakers, are yet to formally announce their plans but the Los Angeles Times, citing a person with knowledge of the situation, said that the team also does not expect to commence the 2020-21 season with fans in the arena.

Meanwhile, the Thunder, along with Chesapeake Energy Arena’s management company ASM Global, have announced a raft of measures to have fans back in the venue when the new NBA season commences.

In order to create appropriate and safe physical distancing, there will be reduced seating capacity for home games. Health and safety measures for game and event nights will also include six-foot seating distance between groups of guests, required face masks, established contactless, self-service ticket scanning and concession purchases, and mandated strict hygiene and disinfecting procedures throughout the building.

The protocols and guidelines were developed by a health and safety task force comprised of representatives from the Thunder and in partnership with ASM Global, the City of Oklahoma City, OKC-County Health Department, OU Health and the NBA. The Thunder said the joint effort began in March, continued throughout the NBA hiatus and remains focused on staying current with appropriate measures that are being put into place.

The task force also called upon ASM Global’s VenueShield program. VenueShield and its experts have partnered with health officials and industry leaders in environmental hygiene and sanitisation to provide an evolving approach to the unique aspects of the more than 300 ASM Global-managed venues around the world.

“We remain focused on providing a safe and healthy environment for our guests as they return to enjoy the Thunder Basketball experience,” said Danny Barth, executive vice-president and chief administrative officer for the Thunder.

“We have worked in close collaboration with the City of Oklahoma City, arena management and local health authorities to develop and implement these important measures.”

Chris Semrau, general manager of Chesapeake Energy Arena, added: “We are committed to fostering strong public confidence in the health and safety of the experience when guests return to the facility for events. We recognise our guests’ desire to fully enjoy the event journey and we have taken the necessary steps to ensure a safe environment and a memorable experience.”

Image: Staples Center