Arizona Coyotes yesterday (Thursday) became the first NHL ice hockey team to welcome fans back to its home arena since the outbreak of COVID-19, with the move labelled “incredibly risky” by a local health expert.

The Coyotes last week confirmed a limited seating capacity for the team’s home games at Gila River Arena for the month of January. The City of Glendale recently approved the 25% capacity meaning a maximum of 3,450 fans were allowed at the Coyotes home and season opener versus the San Jose Sharks as well as the club’s five other home games during the month.

In the end only 2,274 fans attended yesterday’s game, which ended in a 4-3 defeat for the home team, perhaps deterred by the fact Arizona is currently leading the US in terms of COVID-19 infection rate.

“I think it’s incredibly risky,” Megan Jehn, an associate professor of epidemiology at Arizona State University, told the Arizona Republic newspaper. “The COVID situation in Arizona is peaking right now. Our hospitals are at capacity. Healthcare workers are exhausted and stretched thin. This is not the time you want to develop COVID. We know that COVID is everywhere right now.”

Ahead of the game, the Coyotes had sought to stress the measures put in place to ensure safe fan attendance at Gila River Arena. “The health and safety of our fans, players, coaches, and staff has been our top priority throughout this process and we are looking forward to beginning the season with a limited capacity of seating for our fans,” said Coyotes president and CEO, Xavier Gutierrez.

“We are confident that the innovative and tech-enabled services we have in place will protect the health and safety of our fans. We are excited about the upcoming NHL season and are ready to welcome our great fans back.”

The Coyotes will work with Gila River Arena and the City of Glendale to determine the seating capacity for each month throughout the 2021 NHL season. A variety of safety measures upon reopening include socially distanced seating, full digital ticketing, cashless transactions, pre-paid touchless parking, the installation of sanitiser stations throughout the venue, enhanced sanitation measures and additional food preparation protocols at all concessions, ingress, egress, fan flow circulation, and a no bag policy. All fans and arena employees are required to wear a mask when not actively eating or drinking.

In addition, Gila River Arena has been equipped with VenueShield, a comprehensive program developed by ASM Global that has been deployed at more than 325 facilities around the world. The Coyotes also request that all fans attending home games use CLEAR’s Health Pass app.

Health Pass is a mobile app product by CLEAR, which securely connects a person’s verified identity to multiple layers of COVID-19 related insights to reduce public health risk. Health Pass was a key part of the NHL’s successful 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubbles.

The Coyotes have also introduced new all-inclusive four and six person Mini Suites/Loges at Gila River Arena for the 2021 season. The team said: “These suites are safe, secure, affordable, and ideal for small family/friend gatherings or to entertain and reward your best clients and employees.”

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