The Kenai River Brown Bears salute seats mostly empty due to coronavirus mitigation measures after a victory over the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Friday, April 23, 2021, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River Brown Bears salute seats mostly empty due to coronavirus mitigation measures after a victory over the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Friday, April 23, 2021, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears spectator limit boosted to 750 for Friday’s game

The spectator limit at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex has fluctuated between 250 and 750 since February.

The Kenai River Brown Bears, the area’s junior hockey team, will be allowed to play before 750 spectators when they compete against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Soldotna on Friday and Saturday, regardless of minor fluctuations in COVID-19 case numbers, which have determined spectator limits at the complex this year.

That’s according to new guidance the City of Soldotna made earlier this week. The spectator limit at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex has fluctuated between 250 and 750 since February, when the Soldotna City Council adopted a resolution that said the complex would be limited to 250 spectators when the central peninsula’s 14-day COVID-19 case numbers put the region at “high” risk level.

The spectator limit increased to 750 when the region dropped out of high risk. All of the Brown Bears’ six home games to this point have been played at the spectator limit of 250.

Multiple people testified before the Soldotna City Council during their Wednesday meeting requesting that the spectator limit be increased to 1,500 for the Brown Bears’ two home games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs this weekend. Prior to March, the Brown Bears played exclusively in the Lower 48 while following rigorous COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

In response to concerns some raised about the financial hit the Brown Bears are taking due to spectator limits, council member Pamela Parker said that, as a nonprofit, the Brown Bears are eligible to apply for financial relief through CARES Act programs offered by the city.

Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said Thursday that the Brown Bears have not applied for any CARES Act funding through the city’s nonprofit grant programs, but that she reached out to team leadership last month to let them know that funds could be used to offset financial impacts they experienced due to COVID-19, but that the team “declined to pursue that option.” Eligible impacts could include lost ticket revenue due to attendance cap and increased expenses due to mitigation measures.

Council member Justin Ruffridge said that increasing the spectator limit for Brown Bears games may create more work for Soldonta’s Parks and Recreation Department and for the Brown Bears, who would need to enforce COVID-19 mitigation protocols among a larger crowd.

“There’s a concern even with the little bit of people currently attending the games that that is seeming to be a difficult task,” Ruffridge said. “How much greater will that problem be if we go up to a larger number of people?”

The council introduced the option of increasing spectators to 750 — if COVID case numbers went down — at the end of February. The resolution they approved also requires everyone in the sports complex to wear masks at all times, including coaches. Athletes and game officials do not need to wear masks when on the ice, which includes penalty and team benches, nor do people who are eating or drinking.

Soldotna City Clerk Shellie Saner said that because the issue of spectator limits at Brown Bears games is “controversial” she would not recommend the council take action on the issue during Wednesday’s meeting if they wanted to increase the limit higher than 750.

Instead, the council could call a special meeting to consider the issue, which would give more people the opportunity to testify on the issue, or wait until their next regular meeting on May 26.

“Because this is a very controversial subject and it has not been noticed as an action to be taken up by the council, it would be my recommendation as the clerk — because there is another side that hasn’t had the opportunity to voice their opinion — not to take this matter up at this meeting,” Saner said.

Queen said Wednesday that she thought the central peninsula would have dropped to medium risk by the time of Wednesday’s council meeting, but that they were close to dropping out of high-risk level. As of Thursday afternoon, the central peninsula was considered to be at medium risk, with 47 COVID-19 cases reported in central peninsula communities over the last 14 days.

Queen has previously said that the city uses the same metrics used by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to determine whether the central peninsula is at high, medium or low risk. That metric looks at the number of cases reported in the last 14 days in central peninsula communities, which include Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski, Sterling and “Other North.”

“I felt comfortable on Monday saying that we anticipate by the Friday game that the numbers will be within the range of that policy where we can go back to 750,” Queen said Wednesday.

Queen also said Soldotna Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael on Tuesday reached out to the Kenai River Brown Bears General Manager Chris Hedlund to “lock in” the higher spectator limit of 750 for Friday and Saturday games as a way to provide the team some certainty.

The Kenai River Brown Bears are scheduled to play the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the sports complex at 7:30 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. Wednesday’s city council meeting can be viewed on the City of Soldotna’s website at soldotna.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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