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Butts in seats

Rob Shaw: Even with hospitals overflowing in Northern BC, areas like Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island could soon see arenas and stadiums full of people. For some, this will seem contradictory.
Maybe not as far off as you might think. (meunierd /

BC could soon return to full capacity for its arenas and stadiums, allowing thousands of people to pack the stands for a sports game or concert, even after weeks of dire warnings that the province’s health care system is stretched to its limit.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said she’ll decide in the week whether to allow max capacity at sports, concerts, theatre, and symphony events, fulfilling a promise she made in late August to consider the issue if there was encouraging uptake in the province on vaccinations and use of the vaccine card.

BC is sitting at around a 82.7 per cent full vaccination, and more than 3.5 million people have downloaded and are using the vaccine card system to prove their immunization against COVID-19 when entering restaurants, gyms and other non-essential businesses.

“I said in August that I was hoping we'd see a full arena for a Canucks game or for a concert, for the symphony,” said Henry this week.

“I think in many parts of the province that is still in the cards.”

Currently, most indoor mass gatherings are operating at 50 per cent capacity, under public health rules.

For some people, the return to normal and thousands of cheering fans is long overdue.

The Vancouver Canucks have been selling tickets for all of the almost 19,000 seats at Rogers Arena in advance of the team’s home opener Oct. 26, as well as all home games after that, in hopes Dr. Henry grants permission for an eager fanbase to return.

But for others, there will be some cognitive dissonance between how BC can relax rules for mass gatherings when case counts remain high, the death rate is worrying, hospitals are strained to capacity, patients are being flown out of the North due to overflowing critical care wards, and the Interior, North and Fraser East are under extra health restrictions to fight high spread caused by low vaccination rates.

In short: Not everyone is going to be comfortable attending a 55,000-person concert at BC Place any time soon.

It’s going to take some careful explaining by Dr. Henry as to why BC can relax rules for large crowds on the one hand, while describing the daily COVID numbers as “stable but they are still very high” and being “very concerned” about the situation in the North.

She’s made clear early how she intends to deliver that argument.

The mass gathering events will be approved based on region, so they’ll only be allowed in areas with high vaccination rates, like Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver.

You’ll need to be vaccinated to enter and you’ll have to show your vaccine card to prove it.

Henry has also indicated you’ll still have to wear a mask inside the arena to keep things safe, much longer than the initial timeline to reconsider mandatory masks in January.

“I think masking is going to need to be with us for a while longer,” she said.

“We know -- and now there's some good evidence that keeps coming up -- that even in fully vaccinated populations, when you're crowded together indoors for a period of time it makes it safer for everybody to be wearing masks.”

The combination of those three conditions could convince some hesitant folks to return to indoor crowds.

But many others will still find the idea off-putting and risky.

BC is at a weird moment in its recovery, where despite vaccines offering proven protection, and despite a vaccination rate that’s higher than what Dr. Henry first cited would allow us to return to normal, there are still serious concerns about the province’s COVID trajectory.

We’ll have to be calm and slow in our reopening. People will need to hear again and again why it’s safe. And some may choose to wait a little longer, even if Dr. Henry gives the okay to return to normal for a Canucks game.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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