Ontario sport minister Lisa MacLeod does not foresee fans in CFL stands by August 5

Photo courtesy: Government of Ontario

Ontario sport minister Lisa MacLeod remains hopeful the CFL can kick-off its season in the summer, but she does not foresee fans in the stands by the August 5 target date.

The three-down league has stated it requires a ‘significant’ number of fans in stadiums by the currently scheduled opening day to proceed. Amidst the current COVID-19 situation in Ontario — the province has extended its stay at home order until at least June 2 — MacLeod doesn’t visualize meeting the CFL’s timeline for bums in seats.

“I would say that would be ambitious. I just saw today in my own city of Ottawa the Canadian Tire Centre suggesting that they’re going to be having fans in stands for concerts and sports, and I just don’t see that at the moment,” MacLeod said.

She cited a few main reasons for facilities keeping doors closed through the summer. Adequate supply of vaccine and doses making their way into arms of citizens, availability of rapid antigen testing, and lastly, consumer sentiments and behaviours, which MacLeod admitted is scrutinized by her office on a weekly basis.

“While there will be some committed fans that will want to get into those stands, there are a number of people in Ontario today that are still far too reticent given the public health restrictions and the current COVID reality across Ontario,” MacLeod said.

“That’s a fear I have not just for sports, but also for live music. I don’t have a crystal ball, however, but I think it might be a bit ambitious.”

A recent national report, posted online and revealed on the televised coverage of the Canadian Draft, stated that each of the six provinces which have CFL franchises inside their borders had verbally approved the league’s return-to-play proposal. MacLeod stated emphatically that was incorrect and indeed not the case for Ontario.

“No, we have not added our name yet to signing off on that. We have continually worked with the CFL over the past 14 months. We continue to work with them at the public health table, but to this point in time, no, the chief medical officer of health of Ontario has not yet signed off on a return to play protocol,” MacLeod said.

“It is my hope that Hamilton will be home to the Grey Cup this coming fall. Obviously, public health conditions will continue to dictate whether that’s possible or not, but we have been in discussions with the Ticats, MLSE, and, of course, you know I’m a Redblacks fan, so in constant contact with them as well.”

MacLeod does not have a timeline for approving the CFL’s health and safety proposals for return to play and teams hosting fans. The thresholds the league needs to meet for any operations are “quite high” and she does expect the CFL can meet the standards. The bar has been set by the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators playing under her watch.

“I know they continue to work, I don’t have a time frame that I can provide you with because the process on the backend really is the league coming to us with a proposal, my team working with them to refine it to go to the health command table, and then health comes back with a number of different queries. The sooner we can land on it the better, but at this point in time I could not provide you with a definitive timeline,” MacLeod said.

Publicly the CFL remains focused on starting the regular season on August 5. Whether its current target date is actually possible has come into question. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been silent when it comes to plans and details, leaving government officials to fill in the information.

“My hope is in a couple of weeks we’re going to be in a really good position with a lot of vaccinations, case counts going down, pressure on our hospitals being relieved. My hope is August is a great time for us to start to think — August or September — on what a return to some level of normalcy will be with most people being vaccinated with both doses,” MacLeod said.

“My hope is that is not too soon and we will look at that date as probably not too ambitious. We’ll continue to work with the league and we are starting to refine the return to play protocols, we’re not there yet. We should work toward an August date, if we have to push that out we will or they will, but we’ll definitely work with them to see what the art of possible is.”

The CFL is hoping for a 14-game season in 2021, but the chances of it happening appear to be fading fast.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.