Open the Field House’s doors

This sports season, Rensselaer has played in a desolate Houston Field House due to the current COVID-19 spectator policy. With the ECAC playoffs approaching, home-ice advantage is insignificant in a barren rink. Many other schools have updated their policies to allow outside spectators, and it is time for RPI to do the same.

RPI’s spectator policy, which prohibits spectators outside the RPI community from attending games, has been called into question since the return of fall sports this year by countless parents and players. The most popular instance was Times Union’s article on parents watching football games atop the hill outside of East Campus Stadium. Graduate student, co-captain of the football team, and co-president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee Vinnie McDonald represented the over 600 student-athletes of RPI at the Fall Town Hall last semester. Pointing out the inconsistencies in the Institute’s policies on visitors, McDonald asked about the possibility of a controlled spectator policy that would allow parents, especially those of seniors, to be in the stands to watch their children play this season.

President Shirley Ann Jackson was open to meeting with student-athlete leadership but defended the current policy, stating that it was for the health and safety of the RPI community. However, her response does not address the issue of inconsistent COVID-19 restrictions. Campus tours have gone inside the Union. More recently, the policy conveniently changed its Trigger Level 1 threshold right before class started when a two-week quarantine would have normally been implemented. If the administration was concerned with the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, there would be no exceptions.

After the temporary changes to the spectator policy for senior games and fall sports playoffs, I was hopeful that the policy would be changed to admit spectators for winter sports, particularly hockey, but they have yet to take such action. Students and faculty are still the only ones that are allowed to attend games. The Field House is relatively empty, with the average attendance being 377 for the ten home games where students were on campus. Other schools have allowed spectators to safely fill up the stands, typically bringing in an attendance of at least 1,200 each night. The massive crowd gives their teams a noticeable advantage. In opponents’ rinks with over 1,000 spectators in attendance, the Engineers are 4‒8‒1 with a goal differential of -17. In the top three attended home games, the Engineers are 2-0-1 with a goal differential of 9. There is obviously more to hockey than just the fans, but they can reinvigorate or demoralize. They are key to uplifting our team during home games.

There are safe ways of allowing fans back into the Field House. Requiring full vaccination and proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test upon entrance minimizes risk. That was the policy at MVP Arena for the Mayor’s Cup games, and RPI students, faculty, and staff sat among the 4,222 in attendance. The ECAC playoffs are approaching and the Engineers will need home-ice advantage now more than ever. The issue is that there’s less motivation to fight for home-ice advantage when the rink isn’t filled with spectators.

It’s a little too late in the season to start increasing slowly, so I propose opening up the Field House for one game: the Big Red Freakout this Saturday. To start the process of admitting spectators, tickets could be sold online in a limited amount, perhaps restricting total tickets sold to a third of the total capacity of the Field House. An estimate of the student attendance for the Big Red Freakout, using a 20% increase from the attendance of this year’s Blackout game against Union as a comparison, is about 831.6 students. Subtracting that from a third of the Field House’s 4800-person capacity leaves 750 tickets to be sold to spectators. The Engineers are on the road the following weekend, meaning there will be two weeks to collect testing data to assess how spectators might contribute to a rise in cases. If there is no drastic increase, there is room to expand policy further.

The well-being of the RPI community is of utmost importance, but there is not much else that can be done. Most members of the community are fully vaccinated and boosted. There is no way that fully vaccinated COVID-negative spectators on the opposite side of the rink pose a substantial threat to our health and safety. We can’t wait this out while other schools return to normal.

Editor's Note: The capacity of the Houston Field House was written to be 1600 people in a previous version of this article.