TAMPA, Fla. - The Tampa Bay Lightning will open its 2020-21 season without fans due to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Hillsborough County and west-central Florida, according to Vinik Sports Group, LLC, the parent company of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"When we looked at the trends locally in positivity rates and hospitalization rates and cases, we were concerned," said Jarrod Dillon, chief marketing and revenue officer of The Vinik Sports Group.
In a news release Saturday morning, Vinik Sports Group, LLC, announced that the arena will remain closed to fans through at least February 5, which also impacts the Toronto Raptors games.
The Toronto Raptors have been playing at Amalie arena since December. The team decided to play the season in Tampa instead of Canada because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Canadian government’s decision not to give pro-athletes an exception to cross the border.
"We have worked tirelessly, putting every safety measure possible in place at Amalie Arena. However, as we review current data and COVID-19 modeling for the next few weeks in the Tampa Bay area, we do not believe it is prudent to admit fans inside the arena at this time," said Steve Griggs, CEO of Vinik Sports Group and the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Please note the decision to close Amalie Arena was made internally, without direction from local health or government officials.
The decision had many Bolts fans upset, but understanding.
For Michael Schwartz, who’s held season tickets since the start of the franchise, it’s upsetting but understandable.
"My reaction was, oh my God, what am I going to do with all of my time," he laughed. "But I’m not upset with what the Lightning have done, I think it was the smart, intelligent thing to do. There’s nothing you can do to convince me that it’s safe. There’s so many people in that building. The air is being breathed by everybody."
Grigg said, he is hopeful to reopen the arena soon after COVID-19 rates decline.
"Our health care agency partners and the local governments have helped ensure that Amalie Arena is as safe and healthy as possible, but because of the increasing numbers and the rising positivity rates we are not comfortable bringing large numbers of fans indoors to watch hockey or basketball right now," he said.
As for watching the game outside the arena, at the famed "Thunder Alley," that’s not happening either.
"That will not be in the plans coming up shortly," Dillon said. "We’ll continue to look at that and address that. But even with fans being back in the building, that was not going to be a part of the program."
The Lightning's first game of the season is scheduled for Wednesday, January 13 versus the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena. They are scheduled to play 56 games during the 2020-21 regular season, 28 of those at home in Amalie Arena.
The team's last regular-season home game is scheduled for May 4 against the Florida Panthers.