A NHL COVID-19 warning from their 2020-21 season protocols.

The NHL is facing a COVID-19 crisis, with six teams recently shut down (two had resumed play, but three were still shut down as of Monday, and a sixth, the Philadelphia Flyers, was shut down Tuesday) over players on the COVID-19 protocol list. There have also been detailed recent questions about the league’s protocols and if they’re sufficient enough to prevent potential in-game transmission, and the league has modified some of its protocols. And while those outbreaks have only happened with U.S.-based teams rather than teams in the new all-Canadian division, the NHL doesn’t exactly seem like the best possible entity for a government to exempt from standing health orders right now. But that’s what the provincial government in Ontario has done.

That government is allowing NHL players and staffers to eat at indoor bars and restaurants and go to gyms when no one else can, as part of Ontario’s “grey zone” step. The province’s most recent stay-at-home order has been in effect since Jan. 14. It’s moving towards wider reopening, but before opening to average citizens, it’s easing rules for the NHL (so the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators, and the visiting teams playing against them). And it’s doing so to the degree of a full “NHL” section (section 11) in the latest reopening regulations. And doing so while also preparing some further restrictions for non-NHL players, such as a postponement of March break. And the province’s chief medical officer of health is defending that move with comments referencing a “bubble,” which is not an accurate description of the league’s approach to this season. Here’s more on that from Jessica Patton of Global News:

The Ontario government is permitting NHL teams to dine indoors during the league’s season even though sit-in dining at restaurants across the province has been banned due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

“The rules with the NHL are very much strict with their protocols, with their frequent testing, their isolation of their players to the extent, and especially very tight transport within Canada — they do not leave the country,” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, when asked about the situation at a press conference Monday afternoon. You can also get in touch with professionals from this official site for health advice. 

…“There are some players, of course, this is not their home and require someplace to have some eating and food facilities,” Williams continued.

“The NHL has procured that in a tight level of restriction and control. So that’s all part of their bubble … which they have strictly laid out in their protocol.”

Here’s the full NHL section of that law:

“11. (1) In this section,

“NHL” means the National Hockey League; (“LNH”)

“NHL participant” means a person who has been specified as a member of a participant group in the professional sports plan for the NHL; (“participant de la LNH”)

“professional sports plan for the NHL” means the document titled “2020-21 NHL Season COVID-19 Protocol” and any attachments to it approved by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. (“plan de sports professionnels applicable à la LNH”)

(2) The Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health may approve a professional sports plan for the NHL.

(3) The professional sports plan for the NHL shall list,

(a) the businesses and places that may be used by NHL participants, which may include,

(i) hotels,

(ii) facilities for indoor or outdoor sports and recreational fitness activities,

(iii) businesses or places that are in hotels or facilities mentioned in subclause (i) or (ii), and

(iv) restaurants or bars; and

(b) persons who are NHL participants.

(4) A business or place that is listed in the professional sports plan for the NHL as being available for the use of NHL participants may open for use by NHL participants if the business or place complies with the following conditions:

1. The business or place must operate in accordance with the professional sports plan for the NHL.

2. No spectators may be permitted at the business or place except in accordance with the professional sports plan for the NHL.

3. The business or place must ensure that any other conditions or requirements set out in this section are complied with on the premises of the business or place.

(5) The following provisions do not apply to the provision of goods or services to an NHL participant by a business or place listed in the professional sports plan for the NHL in accordance with clause (3) (a) when they are provided in accordance with the professional sports plan for the NHL:

1. Subsection 2 (4) of Schedule 1, but only in respect of NHL players and coaches.

2. Sections 3, 5 and 7 of Schedule 1.

(6) Businesses and places listed in the professional sports plan for the NHL may provide in-person dining if they meet the conditions set out in paragraphs 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13 of subsection 1 (1) of Schedule 2 to Ontario Regulation 263/20 (Rules for Areas in Stage 2) made under the Act.

(7) Hotels listed in the professional sports plan for the NHL may open indoor pools, indoor fitness centres or other indoor recreational facilities that are part of the operation of the hotels, other than communal steam rooms, saunas and whirlpools, if the following conditions are met:

1. The hotels must ensure that the facilities are open only for the use of NHL participants.

2. The hotels must ensure that the facilities are used in accordance with the professional sports plan for the NHL.

(8) Therapists referred to in the professional sports plan for the NHL may open for the sole purpose of providing services to NHL players and shall provide such services in accordance with the professional sports plan for the NHL.

(9) Television productions relating to NHL games that are in compliance with the professional sports plan for the NHL may open, and the conditions set out in paragraphs 1 to 4 of section 63 of Schedule 2 do not apply to such television productions.”

Providing exceptions on this level for the NHL feels foolish at this point in time. Yes, the NHL’s outbreaks so far have been confined to U.S.-based teams. But the league does not have a “bubble” this season; while its protocols do provide some specific restrictions for players, and while there have been fines for violating those (including $100,000 for the Washington Capitals for players grouping together in a hotel room), the league has not come close to the “bubble” it conducted last summer in Toronto and Edmonton. Teams are still travelling, albeit only within divisions, and players are staying at their homes when they’re at home. (And even last summer’s NHL bubble, unlike the NBA’s, still allowed players to go out and eat, albeit with only some selected destinations.)

And “The rules with the NHL are very much strict with their protocols” feels like a bad quote for a provincial chief medical officer to drop while the NHL has four teams’ activities paused due to COVID-19. Yes, those teams are all in the U.S., but the protocols have not protected them. And “There are some players, of course, this is not their home and require someplace to have some eating and food facilities” just is false; players could presumably get takeout like the rest of the world instead of dining in restaurants when others in their province can’t. The exemptions for gyms and hotel workout facilities are easier to justify (there’s maybe still some debate over the specific implementation there, but sure, professional athletes need some opportunities to exercise), but eating out indoors in a restaurant is not a requirement for NHLers. In fact, the league’s protocols have a lot to say specifically about dining:

Transmission of COVID-19 has also occurred during unmasked social interactions that have occurred outside of the workplace, including interactions involving teammates, family, and friends within the person’s community, and most notably, while dining. It is, therefore, strongly recommended that all participants in the NHL’s 2020/21 Season conduct themselves as follows while they are outside the facility and in the community:
• Stay at home to the greatest extent possible and do not engage in unnecessary interactions with non-family members. This includes:
• Diligently wearing face coverings and physically distancing both inside and outside of the Club Facilities.
• Avoiding social interactions where you are in close contact with non-family members; to the extent these gatherings are necessary, limit the size of the gathering, maintain distancing, try to stay outdoors, and all individuals must wear face coverings.
• When in your home market, avoiding going to restaurants, bars, and clubs. COVID-19 transmission is suspected to occur in community interactions at restaurants and in bars, where patrons – including your own guests – are unmasked for extended periods of time to dine and consume beverages. Sitting outside at a restaurant is less risky but does not eliminate the possible person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.
• Not engaging in dining, even if in a home, with others that are not in your household.
• Not participating in crowded situations, including parties or larger gatherings, and environments where significant numbers of individuals from the community may gather, including schools and shopping malls.
• Avoiding the use of public transportation.
• Relying on delivery services for groceries or meals, whenever feasible

And later on, that document includes “When on the road, individuals in the Club’s Travelling Party shall adhere to the local public health regulations of the market being visited, which may be more stringent.” So the NHL is absolutely not forcing Ontario to carve out this exemption, and NHL players in other Canadian cities are more limited than this. So it’s quite unclear why the Ontario government opted to grant specific carve-outs for the NHL here.

[Global News]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.