With Ohio hurtling to a point where mass gatherings will be limited by state order to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, very odd scenes will be experienced in Nationwide Arena starting Thursday night.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday afternoon that an order against mass gatherings -- such as sporting events -- will be issued within the next 24 to 36 hours. In response, the Blue Jackets home games starting with Thursday night's game vs. Pittsburgh will be played without the general public in Nationwide Arena.
The unprecedented move will lead to a surreal experience to be sure, and while the games will remain open to media and broadcast on television and radio, the vibe in the downtown arena will certainly be different.
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"Ultimately, players want to play in front of fans," said Cam Atkinson, who is expected to return from an injury layoff, after the team's morning practice Wednesday, at which point the governor's suggestion to avoid large crowds was a suggestion and not in the process of becoming a state order.
"If that decision comes, I'm all for doing what is best for not only Columbus but the entire world, right? At the end of the day, we want everyone to be healthy from this sickness."
Given the virus' potential to spread rapidly, the decision is seen as a necessary precaution by state authorities, who have already diagnosed 'community spread' -- i.e., spread among Ohioans who haven't visited previously affected areas.
That means large groups of people, where the virus can spread like wildfire, are viewed as unnecessary risks. Without precautions, DeWine said the spread of the virus would likely overwhelm the state's health care apparatus, which has started to happen in other spots around the world.
For CBJ captain Nick Foligno, his thoughts were similar to Atkinson's -- while he'd rather play in front of The 5th Line, precautions must be taken.
"(It will be weird) probably just because we're not used to it," Foligno said. "We're used to playing in front of a really loud crowd here especially, but if you ask anybody, we just want to play. That's what we love to do as players. We love to entertain, but we just love to play the game.
"We understand the concern by the public, but we're educated as well on what is going on here, and we're excited about the opportunity to just continue to pay and we'll let the smarter people try to figure (policies) out."
Before the final decision was made Wednesday afternoon, the Blue Jackets put precautions in place for both fans who had been expected to attend as well as players in the arena.
The arena has been cleaned and stations of hand sanitizers were placed throughout. In the locker room, the team has met with health officials who have mandated policies such as no sharing of water bottles, single-use towels and the elimination of roommates for road trip, all to halt the spread of germs.
"We had our medical experts talk to our team about all the measures we're taking to keep the locker room and the workplaces as safe as possible," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Wednesday morning. "We are doing everything we can to make sure that we can prevent this from spreading, and I think that's the responsible thing."
While all games down the stretch -- including the game against the rival Penguins -- will be important, those in at least Columbus will be staged in front of a largely empty building for the time being. No matter what, though, the Blue Jackets players expect to handle the challenge and be ready when the puck drops Thursday.
"We're just excited about getting an opportunity to continue this playoff hunt that we're on," Foligno said. "We know how important this game is to our team, and that's our focus right now -- making sure that we're ready to play the Pittsburgh Penguins."
"I don't think it matters how many fans are in the stands for you to get up for those games," Atkinson said.