Mixed bag for mask mandate at inaugural Kraken preseason game in Spokane

Sep 27, 2021, 2:37 PM | Updated: Sep 28, 2021, 4:58 pm
Kraken Spokane Arena...
Fans at Spokane Arena watch the Kraken versus the Canucks in the Seattle NHL expansion team's exhibition debut on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

The Kraken’s inaugural history-making preseason game against the Vancouver Canucks ended in a 5-3 victory for Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise. But while the new hockey team prevailed in their first outing, the state’s mask mandate for indoor spaces and large events did not fare so well.

Rather than in Seattle or Vancouver, the game – which is perhaps one of the largest entirely indoor events, in terms of total attendance, held anywhere in Washington since the pandemic began in 2020 – was played at Spokane Arena before a crowd of more than 10,000 people, all of whom had been required to show proof of vaccination or to undergo a COVID test prior to entering the building.

Seattle beats Canucks 5-3 in 1st preseason game

However, because of the delta variant and the reality of so many breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, the statewide mask requirement was also in place.

At least on paper.

A random sampling of photos of attendees seated in the venue and gathering in the concourses shows many people not wearing masks, contrary to the statewide mandate. Several of those seen not wearing masks did not appear to be actively eating or drinking – though some obviously were.

Mask enforcement before and during the game consisted of a message occasionally appearing on the electronic reader-board that rings the interior of the arena; section ushers also carried small signs reminding fans to keep their masks on.

Kelli Hawkins is spokesperson for Spokane Regional Health District. She told KIRO Radio on Monday that anyone who attended Sunday night’s game would have known clearly what was expected of them as far as wearing a mask was concerned.

“The management of the Kraken and Spokane Arena, … it was very clear in their promotions leading up to the game, and outside of the arena there was signage showing that you were required to wear a mask,” Hawkins said. “People went knowing what would be required and expected of them – helping keep that going.”

Inside the building, it was a different matter.

“Once they got into the arena, that’s really tough to enforce at that point,” Hawkins said, because signage, PA announcements, and expectations only go so far.

“It puts them in a tough position to ask for that,” she added, referring to Spokane Arena ushers and other staff. “But I know they’re doing the best that they can short of going around and continuing to ask people to put their masks back on.”

KIRO Radio reached out to management of Spokane Arena on Monday morning regarding mask enforcement policies and procedures. Director of Entertainment Matt Meyer responded by email that he was playing in a golf tournament and not available to answer questions until late afternoon; further attempts to reach Meyer on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Among the questions posed to Meyer via email Tuesday were what Spokane Arena ushers were instructed to do as far as addressing non-compliance with the mask wearing mandate in the seating area and the concourses.

Complaints about mask mandate enforcement at businesses and other public places including Spokane Arena are handled by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). In an email to KIRO Radio on Tuesday, DOH public information officer Ginny Streeter wrote, “We have not received any complaints assigned to DOH regarding [the Kraken game on Sunday], but we did receive two complaints 9/17 regarding a music event on 9/17 at the arena.  Our complaint response team did reach out to the arena after the 9/17 event and we have not received any further complaints. That being said, sometimes complaints can come in several days after an event.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 situation in Spokane County is “not where we want to be,” according to the regional health district’s Kelli Hawkins.

“We are always moving forward in vaccinations, but we don’t have as high a vaccination rate as we would like to see,” Hawkins continued. “Our hospitalizations are very high right now.”

What’s driving the low vaccination rates in Spokane County?

“I think that we have a very hesitant group,” Hawkins said. “We have a lot of rural areas and that’s been shown throughout the country to be a group that is hesitant to the COVID-19 vaccine in particular. Some of those hesitancies [are from] misinformation or … just wanting to see the effects of the vaccine longer-term. And so they’re waiting.”

“Our role has just been to continue to share valid credible information showing that the vaccine is safe and effective and get as many people vaccinated as we can,” Hawkins said.

As far as risks from unmasked attendees at the Kraken game, Hawkins said that other large events have taken place at Spokane Arena lately, and no associated outbreaks have subsequently been detected. Large events at the recent Spokane County Fair – including concerts and the rodeo – were mostly in outdoor venues, Hawkins said.

The Kraken-Canucks game Sunday was one for the history books – the inaugural exhibition game in what’s hoped will be a terrific regional NHL rivalry.

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But these are odd and challenging times for performers and athletes, and for producers and attendees of big indoor events. For a certain radio historian at the game in Spokane last night, the risky behavior of so many people in the stands made it a lot less pleasant kind of history than it could have been.

That being said, it’s hard to forget that hockey history around here has a dark chapter, especially when it comes to public health.

Historians and obsessive sports fans will recall that Seattle is the only city where a pandemic once shut down the Stanley Cup Finals in progress, ending in a draw for the first and only time. The doomed series took place in March 1919, during the last gasps of what was called the Spanish Flu. The Seattle Metropolitans – who in 1917 became the first American hockey team to win – were hosting the Montreal Canadiens when players from both teams succumbed to the disease that had been ravaging the globe over the previous several months.

Seattle’s forgotten Stanley Cup Championship

The Kraken have two more “home” exhibition games before their first home regular season game on Saturday, Oct. 23, at Climate Pledge Arena. Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena will host the Kraken and the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, Oct. 1. On Saturday, Oct. 2, Seattle will host the Calgary Flames at accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.

“To prepare for this event, the Seattle Thunderbirds have been in communication with ticket holders and have sent multiple reminders about the mask requirements that have been directed by Washington State Department of Public Health,” wrote accesso ShoWare Center’s Kelly Spreitzer, director of sales and marketing, in an email to KIRO Radio early Monday afternoon.

Among the requirements for attendees at accesso ShoWare this Saturday, wrote Spreitzer, are proof of vaccination when entering the venue, and “guests will be required to wear a mask when entering and while inside the venue; signage will be placed around the venue in multiple locations along with our video scoreboard reminding fans that a mask must be worn at all times,” Spreitzer wrote. “Ushers will be reminding guests to keep their masks on unless actively eating or drinking.

Kat Guenet, director of marketing for Angel of the Winds Arena, where the Kraken will play the Oilers Friday night, responded to KIRO Radio’s inquiry with an emailed list of similar mask requirements and COVID safety policies that will be in place at the Everett venue.

“These current policies will be enforced to the best of our ability with staffing, and those who are not compliant will not be able to stay for the event,” Guenet wrote. “We plan to continue to bring people together again safely, and hope that the fans will continue to do the same.”

This story will be updated.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here. 

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Mixed bag for mask mandate at inaugural Kraken preseason game in Spokane