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Local arena managers work with peers to figure out how to open up safely for fans

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 2, 2020

Luke Toporowski (22) says he and his Chiefs teammates are itching to get back on the Spokane Arena ice.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
Luke Toporowski (22) says he and his Chiefs teammates are itching to get back on the Spokane Arena ice. (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Matt Meyer has spent a lot of time in virtual meetings the past five months.

As the director of entertainment at the Spokane Arena as well as the First Interstate Center for the Arts, Meyer has met with booking commissions with representatives from across the country, and with coalitions of event managers at other arenas in Washington state.

He has talked with health officials, government representatives and arena managers who have handled anything from in-person political rallies to rodeos with fans in the stands, as some of the nation’s venues gradually reopen.

“Unfortunately for our industry, if somebody massively messes up, it’s gonna affect everybody,” Meyer said. “It’s just talking through it and getting as many contacts set in place as possible, and working together, collectively.”

For the most part, the process of hosting a large event like a hockey game in Spokane – which the Western Hockey League hopes it is able to do in early December, provided it gets the clearance from health and government officials – is much the same as hosting a hockey game in Everett or Kennewick. As far as protocols go, it’s not that different than a basketball game, either.

Arena managers in Eastern Washington have been working with each other as well as their peers nationwide to figure out how to open arenas safely so that fans can do what so many are longing to do: attend a game again.

“There’s so much info that people are sharing about what they’re doing,” said Rob Kavon, the associate director of athletics for facilities and event operations. “I get emails daily of what other similar institutions are doing, and it’s great to learn from. So many good ideas.”

But whenever that happens, arena managers said the experience won’t be the same as it was in March.

“When we open,” Meyer said, “the arena’s gonna look different.”

And the reopening plans will only work, he said, if people follow the expectations.

‘Who gets in?’

Like Meyer, Kavon has puzzled over arena seating arrangements for months. He has contingency plans for all sorts or seating percentages, from 100 to 0.

“We’re sold out every game,” he said, referring to the Gonzaga men’s basketball games. “How do you pick and choose, out of your 6,000 season ticket holders, who gets in?”

Masks will almost certainly be required of fans, Kavon and Meyer said. Concessions might be limited. Seats will likely be grouped by pairs, fours and sixes with gaps between groupings.

“You take the seating map, and we’re throwing out the idea of, do we just allow students in, if we have a limited capacity?” Kavon said. “There’re a lot of balls in the air, unfortunately.”

But the baseline, Kavon said, is maintaining an environment that is safe for everyone in it.

Kavon and Meyer said they have learned from the examples of professional leagues that have reopened since July. The NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLB created bubbles for their teams, but Major League Baseball teams have played in their home stadiums to cardboard cutouts instead of real people.

Some of what they are doing is transferable, Kavon said, but bubbling would just not be the same in a college setting – especially at Gonzaga.

“Some of these other larger (college) programs where they have athlete-only dorms, they may be able to accomplish it more than we can,” Kavon said. “Our students are so integrated on campus, and that’s what makes their experience so much different than large schools.”

Gonzaga students have the option of attending in-person classes this fall.

At Washington State, classes are almost entirely online, but many students, including some athletes, are still in Pullman.

“We do our best to build a bubble, a safe area for these student-athletes and our staff,” said Shawn Deeds, who manages events and facility operations at WSU. “The NBA, they have a lot of money to go handle what they’re doing, and that works. But colleges don’t have that.”

Deeds said they were “ahead of the curve” on masks, sanitizer and disinfecting locker rooms.

“I’ve had the money to purchase a lot of items to keep our kids safe,” he said.

Deeds has walked the stands, measured seats and created layouts. His safety team meets three times a week to figure out how to get fans back in the stands safely.

He said they have created a playbook for how they are going to keep their venues as safe as possible.

“All these different rules, guidelines that you try to put into a stadium, (they are) to help people from themselves,” Deeds said. “That’s the difficult part sometimes.”

Players, fans are eager to return

For the Chiefs, who haven’t played hockey as a team since mid-March, the desire to be on the ice again is strong, Luke Toporowski said.

The Chiefs’ 19-year-old forward has been training at home in Iowa, as his teammates are scattered across the United States and Canada. He said he is confident his teammates would adhere to whatever rules of conduct are presented to them.

“At this point, it’s our job in life, so personally I’m not gonna do anything that can put our season at risk any longer,” Toporowski said, “and I know all the other guys will do the same.”

Kavon has talked with many people at Gonzaga about the necessity of following protocols so that live sporting events, when more of them return to Spokane, can stick around.

A college basketball starting date hasn’t been determined.

“It’s an opportunity to educate our fan base and our staff,” Kavon said. “We need to take these steps so that we can do what we want to do.”

At the Arena, there are still details to work out with entrance policies, with concessions, with bathrooms – with all sorts of aspects, Meyer said. But he is thankful that he is not the only person making these decisions.

“Luckily, we aren’t the first building opening up,” he said, “so we can take notes from others across the nation.”

Amid the uncertainties and unknowns, though, Meyer is confident that many people are craving the distraction of live events.

“Everyone’s been held up and hasn’t had that outlet for entertainment,” Meyer said. “Plus, it’s a way to get a release from everything going on in the world. I think the world’s ready for it.”

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