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Sports might not return to L.A. before 2021

As leagues try to make decisions about the future, cities are still increasing and extending protections against coronavirus.

Mar 14, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Fans walk by the Los Angeles Kings Luc Robitaille Statue in front of a closed Staples Center.  Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The most recent reports indicate that the NHL is now willing to compromise the start of the 2020-21 season in order to accommodate some type of season-ending tournament in the early fall, should the league be able to safely resume play. One thing that could be standing in their way? Whether or not cities are willing to open back up to the league yet.

In a weekly briefing with a group of high-level staff from several departments, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti apparently indicated that there may be scenarios under which the city is unable to host large events beyond the NHL’s optimistically tentative fall return and into next year.

The exact message from Garcetti, however, was filtered through several layers of communication before being relayed to the LA Times, as explained here:

Garcetti indicated during the conference call that “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least 1 year,” according to the email.

LAFD Deputy Chief Trevor Richmond wrote the email summarizing [Fire Chief Ralph] Terrazas’ meeting with Garcetti and others, and sent it Tuesday to several fire department staffers. The email was reviewed by The Times.

Fire Department spokesman Peter Sanders said Tuesday that Terrazas was “paraphrasing information he received from the mayor regarding possible scenarios for reopening timelines across a range of events.”

Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar confirmed the mayor’s comments at the meeting. “The mayor was generally referencing studies of current and historical data and best practices for safely reopening our economy,” Comisar said.

Comisar said the mayor doesn’t have a timeline for Los Angeles to begin resuming large-scale events. Garcetti himself has repeatedly told Angelenos during his nightly press briefings that it would be a mistake to reopen businesses and stores before the pandemic can be controlled.

Experts are still expecting stay-at-home orders across the country to be extended through May and into June, reasoning the NHL likely used when indefinitely postponing the 2020 Scouting Combine, NHL Entry Draft and year-end awards — all of which were planned for this summer. The league has indicated that the combine is now likely to be cancelled and the draft is unlikely to be held in Montreal, if at all.

Overall though, the NHL has remained steadfast in refusing to outright cancel the 2019-20 season, which means holding on to these best-case scenarios until the last possible moment — like cities banning public gatherings, or a player in a league that shares your locker rooms testing positive for COVID-19. But on the other end of the spectrum, holding out until 2021 isn’t even the worst case scenario.

What Garcetti did point out in the conference call, also documented in Richmond’s email, is that opening up the city again is going to be a process, starting with “essential businesses and small businesses ... phased in over a period of time (6-10 months).” Of course, Garcetti has the health and safety of his constituents to think about and Gary Bettman is trying to not lose money, so their plans are going to serve different purposes.

Still, just because LA might not be hosting crowds anytime soon doesn’t necessarily mean games won’t be back. The idea of returning to empty arenas to allow teams to come back in those cities hit hardest by the virus has certainly been floated, though I’m not sure the NHLPA would agree that traveling to cities with those bans in effect is safe for the players. Neutral site hosts have also been talked about, mostly tied to a potential playoff tournament, and would probably be a logistical nightmare if predictions about regular periods of social distancing due to outbreaks becomes the new normal.

All of this is to say that it’s too early to tell, but the host cities may still get the last say in whether or not sports can come back.