TORONTO — Ontario limits on attendance at indoor sports events during the pandemic changed again Monday with Premier Doug Ford slightly accelerating previously announced plans.

Monday's announcement allows 50 per cent of the usual seating capacity at sports arenas in Ontario, as of Thursday with capacity limits being removed March 1 "if public health and health system indicators continue to improve."

Under the previous plan, 50 per cent capacity was slated for Feb. 21 and full capacity March 14.

The Toronto Maple Leafs host Pittsburgh and St. Louis on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The Ottawa Senators' first home game under the new attendance rules is Saturday against Boston.

The Toronto Raptors, currently on a five-game road trip, don't play at home again until March 1 when the Brooklyn Nets visit.

“Following the announcement this morning by the Ontario government, MLSE is very pleased to begin working towards the next phase of reopening this week and welcoming fans back to our venues," Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Leafs and Raptors, said in a statement.

"As an organization that hosts more than four million fans per year, and hundreds of events in multiple venues, MLSE is proud to serve as a central gathering place in Toronto and is fully supportive of the public health measures that have helped protect our community throughout the pandemic. MLSE is also grateful for the tireless work by the provincial government and public health officials that will allow us to return to full operations in a safe manner for our employees, fans and the community at large on March 1.

Ford's announcement came one day after a crowd of 70,048 watched the Los Angeles Rams defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and two days after 80,000 jammed the Stade de France in suburban Paris to see France down Ireland in Six Nations rugby play.

Ontario has been far more cautious, making for a yo-yo season for fans at sporting events in the province.

Ontario announced in early October, ahead of the NHL and NBA seasons, that major indoor pro sports teams had the green light to host capacity crowds.

The move to allow full capacity had been widely expected after Ontario had raised capacity at indoor venues to 50 per cent or 10,000 fans, whichever number is lower.

The Leafs averaged 18,819 spectators through 17 home dates this season, while the Raptors averaged 19,777 in their 15 contests before capacity was capped in mid-December to 50 per cent in response to the latest wave of COVID-19.

In late December, attendance was further reduced to a cap of 1,000 spectators or 50 per cent capacity, whichever was less. MLSE responded by saying it would transition "to operating without any sold tickets" for the next three weeks.

Capacity limits in Ontario prompted the NHL to postpone several Leafs and Ottawa Senators home games.

More restrictions, going into effect Jan. 5, effectively eliminated all fans.

The provincial government then announced last month that — effective Jan. 31 — large sports arenas and concert venues would be allowed 500 people or half-capacity, whichever is lower, until Feb. 21.

Ford said at the time that capacity would then be increased to 50 per cent — with limits removed March 14.

The premier said Monday that Ontario will also lift proof of vaccination requirements for all settings March 1, although businesses and other settings may choose to continue to require proof of vaccination. Masking requirements will remain in place at this time, with a specific timeline to lift this measure to be communicated at a later date.

"Season seat members and the general public will begin receiving communications today to outline logistics for ticket allocations over the coming weeks as well as a determination regarding vaccine mandate protocols that will be made in the coming days based on further discussions with public health officials," MLSE said in a statement.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2022