Thousands of masked and fully-vaxxed Winnipeg Jets fans lined the sidewalks Sunday around the Canada Life Centre, giddy with excitement about attending their first NHL game in more than a year-and-a-half.
The lineups were long, some snaking along Hargrave Street in opposite directions. The reason for the bottleneck: arena staff had to check proof-of-vaccination QR codes of nearly 15,000 fans, a requirement under the province’s COVID-19 public health orders.
People didn’t seem to mind; the lines moved quickly enough, about 15-20 minutes from street to seat. Not bad considering it was team and arena owner True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd.'s first QR code rodeo for a fully-attended Jets game.
It was also Manitoba's first large-scale indoor event since the beginning of the pandemic — and the most significant test to date of how COVID-19 vaccines will allow people to return to some semblance of normal life. It was important to get it right.
Inside the building, it was like any other pre-season Jets game. Fans lined up at concession booths, shouted "True North" during the national anthem, and shared hockey expertise about what head coach Paul Maurice needs to do this year to ice a competitive team.
The only visible difference is everyone in the stands wore masks. A requirement notice periodically flashed on the big screen to remind fans that unless they were "actively eating or drinking," they should be masked up. Arena staff walked the aisles between plays to ensure compliance, but little enforcement was needed. For the most part, it was just another good ol’ hockey game.
This is what it looks like to live with COVID-19, when vaccination rates are high enough to stuff thousands of people into an indoor arena but still too early — for a variety of reasons — to eliminate all public health restrictions.
For Manitoba, Sunday’s Jets pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators (and subsequent ones, including Wednesday’s contest against the Edmonton Oilers) will be important tests to gauge the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, some 15,000 people sat together indoors in very close quarters, often with masks pulled below their chins (because eating and drinking is synonymous with attending a live hockey game) and many cheering at the top of their lungs.
Manitoba is now putting that science to the test.
This was different than a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game, held in an open-air stadium. The SARS-CoV-2 virus transmits more easily indoors, especially when masks are sporadically removed and people are squeezed together.
When almost everyone in the building is fully vaccinated (and they were, except for children under 12), the likelihood of transmission is diminished. More importantly, if the virus does spread between fully vaccinated people, the chance of someone becoming severely ill is significantly reduced.
That’s what the scientific evidence from around the world has shown. Manitoba is now putting that science to the test.
Public health officials will have a pretty good idea 10-14 days after Sunday’s game (the typical incubation period) how much transmission, if any, occurred. If there were breakthrough cases linked to people in attendance, it would get picked up through contact tracing.
This is an important litmus test. If 15,000 mostly vaccinated people can gather in a hockey arena wearing masks (most of the time) and there are few, if any, infections, it would signal a real breakthrough in the ability to return to normal life.
It wouldn’t mean we are ready for post-pandemic living but it would be a significant step towards getting there.
It would show vaccinated people can gather safely again in large numbers, businesses and not-for-profits can resume operations and tax revenues can flow to government coffers to pay for health care, education and other important front-line services.
Sunday’s good ol’ hockey game was the best game you could name. It was also the most visible sign yet of how close we are to returning to normal life.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.