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The Blue Jackets should require proof of COVID vaccination for entry to home games

Requiring proof of vaccination is an easy way to increase health safety measures at all home games.

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2021 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by NHL Images/NHLI via Getty Images

If the Blue Jackets want to continue their tradition of fun, safe, family-oriented home game experiences, a simple way to accomplish that is to require fans attending games to show proof of their COVID vaccination upon entry to Nationwide Arena.

This requirement would align with the Blue Jackets’ and the NHL’s requirement that all employees whose job requires them to operate within 12 feet of players must be vaccinated. Sylvain Lefebvre, a newly-appointed assistant coach as of June 30 of this year, has already been terminated due to his non-compliance with this vaccine policy.

On this decision, GM Jarmo Kekalainen did not mince words:

“It’s just impossible to do your job because of the NHL [vaccination] protocol, so we needed a new coach. We had to move on.”

He explained that this protocol meant Lefebvre could not be on the bench with players, in charter planes, in the coaches’ office, or in the locker room. And that, my friends, is the nature of at-will employment!

At time of publication, 55.2% of the United States population is fully vaccinated. Currently, everyone over the age of 12 is eligible to be vaccinated. This is an important reason to require proof of vaccination at all Blue Jackets games - children under the age of 12 are relying on the herd immunity of vaccinated adults to keep them protected from viral transmission. Blue Jackets games are family events, and plenty of game-goers are under the age of 12. Requiring all eligible fans to be vaccinated before attending a game is just an additional safety measure to keep children safe.

Before I get further into this topic, I want to make it abundantly clear that I understand that a very small percentage of the population is medically ineligible to get the vaccine, in which case they can be issued a medical exemption by their primary care physician. I also want to make it abundantly clear that the only source able to decide if someone is a medically viable candidate for the COVID vaccine is a physician with an MD who is familiar with the patient’s medical history — not Facebook, not Google, not Joe Rogan’s podcast, not any elected politician, not “doing your own research,” and not Nicki Minaj’s Twitter account.

That being said, 100% of the Columbus Blue Jackets are vaccinated, according to The Athletic. I believe that’s a difficult claim to verify at this point in time, given that pre-season training and development is still in full swing. However, the NHL has one of the highest vaccination rates among players in any professional sport right now, which is incredibly encouraging when combined with the fact that all NHL and CBJ team personnel and media are required to be vaccinated.

The players themselves do not have to comply with the NHL’s vaccination requirement, as stated in their NHLPA collective bargaining agreement. However, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly estimates that by the time the season starts, fewer than 15 players in the entire league will be unvaccinated. Although he said he was “surprised” by this number, which equates to nearly 99% of NHL players being vaccinated, he said a 100% vaccination rate among players is the goal.

“We want everybody fully vaccinated and, obviously, the last couple of months have shown that that doesn’t necessarily preclude the fact that people are going to get the infection,” Daly said. “But it certainly increases the likelihood that it’s not a serious health and safety concern.”

Some players were initially skeptical about getting the vaccine. The NHL and the NHLPA strongly recommended the vaccine, taking time to call reluctant players and explain the importance of immunization and the low risks involved with getting the shot, versus the high risks of contracting COVID without being immunized. Additionally, players were informed they could risk not getting paid for games missed due to COVID infections. This combination of education and the risk of missed pay has now resulted in the highest team vaccination rates in professional sports.

Kekalainen said that vaccination status of players will factor into roster decisions, which is another impetus for CBJ players to get vaccinated.

Zac Rinaldo, who signed a two-way contract with the Blue Jackets in mid-August and is expected to play with the Monsters this season, was recently on the campaign trail in his home country of Canada. He was stumping for a far-right candidate for the People’s Party of Canada, a conservative political party that has opposed vaccine mandates and COVID lockdown measures.

Rinaldo states that he’s not anti-vax or anti-mask, but “pro-choice.” He would not comment on whether or not he’s vaccinated.

Sure, the choice to get a vaccine lies with the individual. However, the choice to put him on the roster lies with the vaccinated CBJ coaching staff. Let’s see how that works out for him!

Much in the same way that missed pay motivates players to get inoculated, the Columbus Blue Jackets have the opportunity to motivate their fans to get back to pre-pandemic regularity by requiring proof of vaccination to attend games. If people cannot be convinced to get vaccinated for the sake of their own health or for the sake of the health of everyone around them, perhaps they can be convinced by being unable to attend events unless they are vaccinated. The unvaccinated population is currently the biggest obstacle in curbing the pandemic, according to health and medical experts on the front lines.

According to the CDC, the most recent seven-day COVID death average is 1,464, the highest it’s been since March 1, before vaccines were widely available. The COVID rate among the unvaccinated population is placing major strain on health care systems — as of last week, just 10 of 562 ICU hospital beds and 11 of 2,276 general medical and surgical beds are available in Franklin County because hospitals are so overburdened with COVID patients, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine combined with President Biden’s recent executive orders surrounding the vaccine have given companies the ability to require vaccinations among employees, and it has always been the right of private business entities to require proof of vaccination from customers. The Blue Jackets are a hockey team, but they are also a business — they could certainly require spectators to be vaccinated in order to gain entry to games. Another factor in this situation is that venues can also put vaccine requirements in place. Just across the street from Nationwide Arena, Express Live requires all event-goers to provide proof of vaccination before entering the venue.

I am aware that the Blue Jackets need to make money, and in order to make money, they need to sell tickets to games. I would expect that some of the fanbase would be upset about a vaccine requirement in order to attend games, and that is something that obviously needs to be considered before a decision is made. However, at what cost is the team willing to allow unvaccinated game-goers? It is not an exaggeration to say people’s lives are at stake if unvaccinated spectators are allowed to attend indoor events with children who are ineligible for vaccination. If even one person, potentially a child, gets sick and dies from COVID due to attending a Blue Jackets game, that is too high a cost to compete with potential lost ticket revenue due to obstinate anti-vaxxers.

Attending Blue Jackets games in person is a privilege, not a right. The emphasis on fans returning to arenas must lie with safety and public health, not with letting everyone do whatever they want at the risk of harming others. If the Blue Jackets decide to require vaccine proof for game entry, they will not be the first NHL team to do so.

Fans over the age of 12 must present proof of vaccination to attend Buffalo Sabres games this season. This protocol was announced during the second week of September, which gives fans enough time to get the first dose under their belt before preseason games start. All game attendees must be fully vaccinated by October 31 in order to attend games, and all attendees under the age of 12 must wear masks, with masks optional for everyone else.

Sabres season ticket holders are able to request refunds through September 21, while single game tickets are not allowed to be refunded. This protocol was announced by Erie County, so it applies to Buffalo Bills games too. This policy does not allow for any exceptions — medical, religious, or otherwise.

This means any NHL team looking to initiate a proof of vaccine requirement already has a blueprint to work with. I commend the Sabres, Bills, and city of Buffalo for taking this step to protect spectators at their games, and to do everything they can to ensure the safety of fans, players, team personnel, and arena staff during games. Every single professional sports team playing through the winter would be wise to follow suit, as COVID cases are expected to rise again as temperatures drop and people are stuck inside.

Again, it is a privilege to attend pro sports games, not a right. COVID transmission, especially among the unvaccinated, poses a very high risk to the health and safety of every single person in the arena — players, coaches, media, arena staff, and fans. It is evident that even vaccinated individuals are capable of contracting breakthrough cases of COVID - even though their symptoms are generally milder, they are still at risk for illness. This means organizations need to take every step they can to make the in-game experience safe, which should mean requiring everyone in the arena to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

674,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far - that’s one in every 500 people in this country. That number is staggering. It is incomprehensible. The capacity for Nationwide Arena is about 20,000 people. The number of Americans who died from this virus in the last two years could sell out Nationwide Arena for 34 games straight. Every single person has a responsibility in putting an end to this pandemic, and that responsibility is to get vaccinated to protect yourself and everyone around you.

The whole team is vaccinated, the coaches are vaccinated, the trainers, media, and team personnel are vaccinated.

Be like the Columbus Blue Jackets. Get vaccinated!