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As economies start to open up, so are hockey rinks in U.S.

One private rink operator said many of the protocols he's putting in starting this weekend at his arena will likely be there to stay. "I truly believe this is this generation’s 9-11," said Mark Scheff. "It’s going to change everything.”
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Robert Tatarski is a cardiothoracic nurse who has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis for almost two months. He’s also a recreational hockey player who hasn’t been on the ice for almost that long. And when he got a call from his team captain that the Jacksonville (Fla.) Adult Winter Hockey League would be back on the ice this weekend, he greeted the news with far more enthusiasm than trepidation.

“We’re all just happy to be back out there,” Tatarski said. “I don’t know how it’s all going to work. I’m sure there won’t be the spit police out there. I think it’s going to be left to discretion and people are going to have to do the best they can.”

As parts of the United States start opening up their economies, that also means privately owned rinks such as the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex will be opening their doors as well. The rink in northern Florida is one of the first in the country to start welcoming back people, albeit under very strict restrictions. The league made the decision to open for 1-on-1 instruction and for its adult league when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday that Phase I of the state’s reopening plan is in effect. The Ice & Sportsplex will open starting Saturday only with its 30-team adult league. Youth hockey, public skating and learn-to-skate/play programs likely won’t restart until July at the earliest.

“We have to either open or close,” said owner Mark Scheff. “We’ve pretty much hit that point. We closed on March 17 and I decided to continue to pay the employees until about two weeks ago when we were just running out of money. The landlord wanted their money and they weren’t making any concessions and the $15,000 utility bill had to be paid.”

Scheff estimates his costs at about $70,000 per month in rent and utilities alone, about $250,000 per month in total, and he runs his facility year-round. So when faced with the prospect of opening again under restrictions or facing permanent closure, he took the former. And he and his staff are doing everything they can to ensure the patrons are safe, right down to having the referees wear masks and use electronic whistles. Players are asked to dress as much as they can at home and to show up to the rink no more than 15 minutes before their game starts. They cannot shower at the rink and must leave within 15 minutes of the end of their game. Each person entering the rink will have his or her temperature taken. Games will be spaced out 45 minutes apart and each team will use two dressing rooms to ensure social distancing. Dressing rooms will be thoroughly cleaned with a disinfectant mist before, during and after each game.

“We’ve put together seven or eight pages of public protocols, the majority of which will stay in place forever,” Scheff said. “I truly believe this is this generation’s 9-11. It’s going to change everything.”

Is there a risk to what Scheff and other private operators are doing? Of course there is. But if the state has reopened the economy and he’s taking every precaution possible, then it comes down to whether or not people want to gather there. Scheff said he has had about an 88 percent retention rate in the adult league, which normally runs from January through the Memorial Day weekend in late May. And if there is an advantage here, Jacksonville was not hit near as hard by the virus as the southern part of the state. As of Wednesday, the area had just over 1,000 of the more than 37,000 cases in the state and 26 of the 1,471 deaths. Tatarski said the hospital he works at and where he personally conducted tests had no more than 10 cases and are down to “one or zero cases now.”

There’s no doubt the private rink owners have been devastated by this. Scheff said he’s heard of rinks closing permanently. “If there’s a most vulnerable of the ice rink industry, it’s us privately run facilities,” Scheff said. “Municipal, education…they can just shut down and lay their people off. The few of us who own us don’t have that luxury. So we’ve put every safety precaution in place we can take. Is that going to protect us 100 percent? Who’s to say? I have two alternatives. Shut it down or slowly and methodically open up and hope the public comes back. If they don’t come back, that’s game over anyway."

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