The Miami Heat is opening a new brand of VIP seating for a select group of fans who want to watch the team play at American Airlines Arena — the vaccinated fan section.
And they’re floor seats.
Starting April 1, fans with proof from federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they got their last shot at least 14 days prior to the game will be allowed to enter the arena through a separate gate, given “vaccine verified” wristbands and directed to these primo seats.
“The Heat have allocated two sections in the lower level to fully vaccinated fans,” the team said in a statement. “These seats will be located in Sections 117-118 and the pods of seats will be separated by just one seat.”
But within those sections, everybody will still have to wear masks. And those lucky enough to snag seats closest to the action will get some extra Covid-19 scrutiny.
“Guests seated within 30 feet of the court in the Vaccinated-Fan Sections will still be required to undergo an on-site rapid test at the Arena prior to the game and be cleared by our testing provider,” the Heat said in a statement.
Fans sitting further back will not need to undergo on-site rapid testing or get sniffed by the stadium’s trained “Covid-19 Detection Dogs,” the statement said.
Finally, tickets in the vaccinated section are non-transferable and cannot be resold. And if you’re part of a group, “a guest’s entire party must be fully vaccinated and enter the Arena together.”
Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, was of two minds about The Miami Heat’s special seating for vaccinated fans.
“From a public health perspective, any incentive that motivates people to vaccinate would be a good thing,” McGee said. “However, ethically speaking, such policies are concerning as they discriminate on the basis of immunity status. Small perks for those who are immunized could be harmless, but organizations may take this to an extreme like vaccinated-only airline flights or other restrictions on access to services to only the vaccinated.”
Also, said McGee, a “VIP vaccine bubble may work so long as it doesn’t encourage riskier behavior like removing masks.”
There are other red flags, she said.
“This policy fails to address those with naturally acquired immunity who also present no risk or those who cannot vaccinate due to medical or religious exemptions,” McGee said. “Incentives may give some the impression that they need to be bribed in order to vaccinate, which unintentionally may suggest that there is something concerning or unsafe about these vaccines.”
Dr. Carlos del Rio, who is executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, also expressed some reservations about reserving seating for vaccinated fans.
"I think that it makes sense but I am worried about two things," del Rio said. "One is equity, it reinforces the world of have and have-not’s. The second one is that we still don’t have a great way to demonstrate someone is vaccinated. We have a little piece of paper but that can easily be forged."
Asked if reserved seating like this could convince reluctant sports fans to get vaccinated, del Rio said "I would like to hope that this will be the case."
"We need to get a higher number of people vaccinated and need to stop viral transmission to get there," del Rio said. "Yes, vaccinations are going to help us, but we are not there yet."
The Miami Heat is the first professional basketball team to carve out vaccinated-only sections for their fans, the NBA confirmed Thursday.
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But under the NBA’s rules, children would not be allowed in these sections even with parents or guardians who are vaccinated because they’re not yet eligible to get a Covid-19 shot. And fans would only be able to purchase tickets in groups of two or four.
Right now, all but eight NBA teams have allowed fans to return to stadiums, but at limited capacity and with mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements firmly in place, according to SportsTravel magazine.
The Miami Heat have been playing before crowds of about 4,000, the NBA said.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said even a tiny crowd changes the vibe inside the stadium.
“You’re already getting a sense that things are starting to change and go in a much more positive direction,” Spoelstra told The Associated Press. “Just the environment in our building. I remember those first couple of games we had at the beginning of the year where there was literally nobody here, that was an eerie experience.”