Top experts involved with making the new UBS Arena at Belmont Park safe for the New York Islanders and their fans told Sportico this week they are optimistic the new building in Elmont, N.Y., adjacent to the famous horse racing track will be able to open next fall at full capacity.
“It’s a very realistic possibility,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hawk, a Los Angeles-based health consultant charged with establishing long-term health and safety procedures in new buildings operated by the Oak View Group in New York and Seattle. “Our goal is to really operate within all the local and regional guidelines.”
“By [October] there will be a lot of vaccinated people,” added Ed Bosco, a principal manager for ME Engineers in New York. “It’s not impossible to think that you can put together 20,000 people in a venue this fall.”
The arena, which holds 17,113 for hockey, may open with the team’s first home game of the National Hockey League’s 2021-22 season, but nothing is official until the league announces a schedule.
Commissioner Gary Bettman recently said the NHL still intends to return to its normal 82-game season, beginning in October, after two seasons shortened as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across North America.
The current 56-game season has been played at a strictly limited capacity in about a third of the NHL’s 31 arenas, including the Nassau Coliseum where the Islanders will end their long run at the conclusion of this postseason. Thus far, they’ve sold about 1,400 tickets for each of the three games open to fans at the Coliseum.
Whether exhibition hockey games or a signature concert officially opens UBS Arena is still to be determined, hinging on the NHL’s decision about when to start next season, which will certainly be complicated by capacity issues tied to vaccination rates and containment of the virus.
The Major League Baseball season opened Thursday with about 20% capacity at Yankee Stadium, and likewise next Thursday at Citi Field, just a slap shot away from the new arena.
At the moment, fans in New York must show proof of vaccination or a very recent negative COVID test result to attend any sporting event.
All that could change as the summer rolls on, and more people are fully vaccinated. In fact, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell said this week he expected the next football season to open at full capacity.
“We are discussing our plans to welcome back all of our fans to all of our NFL stadiums across the country for the 2021 season,” he said on the day the league announced expanding the regular season schedule to 17 games. “As you know, we had 1.2 million fans attend games safely last year. Football simply is not the same without fans.”
Neither is hockey.
Whether the Islanders’ new building is open at full capacity or not, fans will return to a higher capacity ventilation system, cashless transactions, no-touch restroom facilities and a sanitation standard that’s expected to remain long after the pandemic has ended, even as masks and social distancing are no longer required by health and safety protocols.
“A lot of the smart technology, a lot of the crowd management, a lot of the safer managerial procedures, and certainly the heightened sanitation procedures will be around for a long time,” Dr. Hawk said.
That standard is already evident at the club’s arena Preview Club, which recently reopened in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, welcoming back sponsors, sales prospects and clients to walk through a space that resembles the new arena’s suites and premium club.
The experts say they are trying to take a balanced approach, mimicking and enhancing new procedures already developed elsewhere.
“Ventilation is really key to what we’re doing to create a safe space,” Dr. Hawk said. “We want to make the arena safe as well as a good and memorable fan experience. Some of the simplest solutions are still very, very effective. We’re really looking at the way people move around the building and eliminating unnecessary touches.”
That includes the now widespread use of cashless points to obtain food, drink or souvenirs, including grab-and-go options on orders through phone applications. Parking and ticketing will now be transacted via an app.
“The goal is to make things as clean as possible without ruining the fan experience,” she added. “I think if we can achieve that goal we’re creating a really exciting new normal for sports and hospitality. We’re basically creating a safer space to play that will serve us well through any flu pandemics in years to come or any future challenge that presents itself.”