Bell Centre will be closed to fans for Thursday's Canadiens game against Flyers

The clock at the Bell Centre shows graphics before the postponement of an NHL hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers, in Montreal, Monday, March 22, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

There were no fans in attendance at the Bell Centre for tonight's Montreal Canadiens game against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the province of Quebec looks to navigate a rise in COVID-19 cases seen across the country.

The request to shutter tonight's game to the public came from Quebec public health officials, the team said, which they accepted "in order to help ensure the safety and security of our fans and fellow citizens throughout our community."

What this means for the short-term future of fans attending games at the Bell Centre is not yet known. The team said an update on Saturday's game, which has the Canadiens slated to face the Boston Bruins, will be provided on Friday.

In a statement released by the team on Thursday evening, the Canadiens said there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in the Bell Centre since the beginning of the pandemic.

Looking beyond the immediate lockout, the team adopted an optimistic tone, noting it has "obtained assurances" that, beginning with games in January, the organization will return to "a partial capacity scenario and be able to host fans once more."

"More details will follow in the days to come and as the portrait of this ever-evolving pandemic becomes clearer," the Canadiens wrote in a statement outlining the announcement. "In the interim we would continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated, get their booster shots when possible, and be responsible with their social and family gatherings throughout the holidays. We hope that with rigour and a collective effort from all of us, we will be able to come together in a near future in 2022."

Quebec's decision to suspend the hosting of fans in the Bell Centre marks the strongest measure so far of its kind taken by a province that has an NHL team.

The move comes on the heels of a similar decision made by the Ontario provincial government, the first jurisdiction to announce a capacity limit for NHL or NBA teams this season, which reduced in-arena capacity for indoor venues able to host 1,000 or more people to 50 per cent.

"This measure is being taken to reduce opportunities for close contact in high-risk indoor settings with large crowds and when masks are not always worn," the Ontario government said in a media release.

Before Ontario's announcement, Canada's deputy chief public health officer said rules allowing full capacity for indoor pro sports need to be examined.

"At the present time, let's say sports arenas, hockey arenas still at full capacity, that's something that I think needs to be looked at," Dr. Howard Njoo said.

Provinces -- not the federal government -- are responsible for making capacity rules.

Capacity slowly went up in provinces across the country over the summer and fall, but rising case counts and the emergence of the Omicron variant have put the issue back in the spotlight.

Research on the Omicron variant, which was first identified in November in Botswana and South Africa, is still developing. However, since its initial discovery, the data so far show it is highly transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than other variants of the coronavirus.

By the end of November, the World Health Organization had labelled Omicron as a "variant of concern." Since then, according to the W.H.O., it has been identified on every continent except Antarctica.


Editor's Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country's public health website for the latest.


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