Scott Stinson: Amid border uncertainty, is Canada headed toward another summer of cancelled tournaments and shuttered stadiums?

In Ontario it's clear that optics are winning the day. A stay-at-home order introduced to arrest the pandemic's third wave still, bafflingly, includes restrictions on outdoor sports

The Blue Jays play an intrasquad game in an empty Rogers Centre on July 9, 2020 in Toronto.

The NHL playoffs will begin this weekend, and in about a month the all-Canadian North division will crown a champion. Whether that team is then forced to relocate to the United States remains to be seen.

The Toronto Blue Jays are soon to depart their temporary home in Florida for their other temporary home in Buffalo, with hopes that they will be allowed at some point to eventually play an actual game at the Rogers Centre for the first time since the fall of 2019.

Canada’s three Major League Soccer teams continue to play games in the United States. Their potential home games next month are listed as location TBD.

The looming uncertainty in all of this is the border. With ongoing 14-day quarantine requirements for incoming travellers, there has so far been little interest expressed from any level of government for giving exemptions to the members of professional sports organizations. It’s an issue that could soon become a problem for events such as the CP Women’s Open golf tournament and Canada’s two national tennis tournaments, all of which theoretically will be held this summer after postponements last year.

Tennis Canada on Wednesday announced that it will consider moving its marquee events to the United States if it cannot host them in Montreal and Toronto in August as planned. Other events, like the RBC Canadian Open and the Canadian Grand Prix, both originally scheduled for next month, have already been scrubbed over border and quarantine issues.

The Canadian Football League, desperate to return to play after cancelling its 2020 season, is fast approaching its own deadline next month to determine training camp dates in advance of a possible mid-summer start. How its hundreds of U.S.-based employees would return to Canada under current restrictions is unclear, especially when several provinces have further limits on gatherings or, in the case of Ontario, doing any sort of organized activity, even outside.

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The leagues and teams are all waiting to see what happens, and they say they are in discussions with government officials on possible protocols that would allow these various events to be held while posing a low risk to public health. But the bigger question, especially amid rising vaccinations rates, is whether politicians will evaluate these things from the perspective of public safety — or be driven by the optics of granting benefits to sports organizations that aren’t available to most members of the public. Put more bluntly: are we headed toward another summer of cancelled tournaments and shuttered stadiums because it’s the easier thing to do, politically?

There is reason to hope that will not be the case. After getting smacked by a third COVID-19 wave, Ontario is now trending in the right direction, offering hopes that provinces now in a worse situation will have similar success. The vaccine rollout will continue, and there are early signs of an immunization threshold that would bring a sharp decline in infections in the coming weeks. Many U.S. states have followed that progression, and are now even allowing paying customers back into stadiums, while that would still seem like so much crazy talk on this side of the border.

But, those optics. With incoming air travellers subject to costly hotel quarantines and the borders theoretically closed to non-essential crossings, would our governments allow, say, a planeload of Boston Bruins to sidestep such restrictions, even if they were to be isolated at a hotel and arena? Would a Calgary Stampeder coming into the country have to drive from his home — thus avoiding the hotel quarantine — and spend two weeks isolating, or would exceptions be given for the vaccinated? Would health authorities sign off on professional tennis or golf bubbles, and would organizers even be able to pull those off if, by late summer, those athletes are long past those requirements in other parts of the world?

Locked gates to a tennis court in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Monday, April 26, 2021.
Locked gates to a tennis court in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Monday, April 26, 2021. Photo by Cole Burston /Bloomberg

In Ontario, at least, it is clear that optics are winning the day. A stay-at-home order that was introduced last month to arrest the pandemic’s third wave still, bafflingly, includes restrictions on outdoor sports that health experts have repeatedly described as unnecessary and even counter-productive. It feels silly to point out that outdoor activity is known to pose an extremely low transmission risk at this point, because we knew this a year ago. Breaking news: Water is wet.

The government’s most recent defence of this nonsense was that the ban on sports is mean to limit mobility — as though people frequently travel great distances to shoot hoops or smack a tennis ball around. For reasons only known to the Doug Ford cabinet, the restrictions on outdoor sports will not be relaxed because … it will look bad, or something? Out of spite? Honestly, I have no idea. Meanwhile, the Ford government has made the borders its chief concern in recent days, demanding that Ottawa tighten travel restrictions on land borders to match those for air travellers, despite their glaring loopholes. None of it points to an environment where rules will be loosened for hockey or football players, however comprehensive their planned health protocols.

Perhaps this pessimism is misplaced. A lot can change in a short time, and a couple more weeks of improving numbers might just avoid another pileup of postponements and relocations. But it’s hard to be confident that cool logic will prevail when tennis courts are padlocked and the wide-open green spaces of soccer fields and golf courses are treated as a threat to public safety.

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