By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY– With the start of the NBA season just around the corner, the Oklahoma City Thunder has begun preparing fans for their return to live basketball. After having no fans during the 2020-21 campaign, the franchise is welcoming people back to the newly-branded Paycom Center. However, there will be some changes.
The Thunder announced Sept. 21 their new COVID-19 protocols. Those who attend any game at the Paycom Center are required to provide proof of either full or partial COVID vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours before the game.
According to Thunder officials, the policy will remain in effect through at least the first 12 games of the preseason and regular season at Paycom Center, which runs from Oct. 4 through Nov. 26. The policy will be constantly reviewed based on the status of COVID cases in Oklahoma.
“As we continue to face serious health challenges from COVID-19, we must remain committed to protecting the health and safety of our community,” said Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett. “While there are no perfect answers, our health experts tell us the vaccine has proven to be effective in slowing the spread of this virus, including the Delta variant. We feel the best option to help keep our community safe is to make sure those who attend our games have a reduced chance of contracting or spreading the virus.”
The day after the Oklahoma City Thunder announced its policy change, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,244 new cases of the Coronavirus in Oklahoma. That pushed the state’s total to more than 600,000 since the start of the pandemic in 2020. That includes just under 8,500 deaths related to the virus.
“The spread of COVID-19 throughout Oklahoma these past couple of months has taken a great toll on our healthcare workers and hospital resources, often keeping critically ill patients waiting in emergency departments or being sent out of the area due to a lack of beds,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU Health Chief Quality Officer and University of Oklahoma Chief COVID Officer. “I am extremely pleased to hear the steps the Oklahoma City Thunder is taking to not only help reduce the risk of transmission during games, but in encouraging Oklahomans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines have proven to be extremely safe and are quite effective in reducing the risk of breakthrough COVID infections.
The Thunder are also “strongly” encouraging fans to wear masks while attending games inside the Paycom Center. While the team fell short of mandating facial coverings, children 2-11 who cannot be vaccinated will be required to wear a mask.
Not everyone is pleased with the team’s decision. That included State Rep. Sean Roberts who sent out a press release accusing the Thunder of pushing an agenda. Roberts, who is from Hominy, also hinted at taking action against the franchise.
“If the Oklahoma City Thunder and their leadership are unwilling to revise this policy, we need to reexamine the significant tax benefits granted to them by the state when they first moved here under the Quality Jobs Act,” Roberts stated in the news release. “We also need to consider passing legislation prohibiting discrimination based on vaccination status or having an immunity passport as Montana has done. Maybe we should look at how these funds could be better used in support of our rural community hospitals that are now struggling due to Biden administration vaccination policies.”
Fans will have several options to show proof of vaccination or test results as they enter Paycom Center, according to the Thunder. They include uploading vaccination cards and test results to the Thunder Mobile App or a special web site that will be available which will allow fans to show documentation via their mobile phones.
Printed or digital photos of CDC vaccination cards or test results will also be accepted.
The Thunder’s new vaccination and test policy comes six months after officials announced the Paycom Center will be a cashless venue going forward in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes all games, concerts and any other events held inside the Paycom Center.
“COVID was a huge part of it,” said Lucy Albers, Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “Throughout our entire process of trying to figure out how to open safely, our main goal was essentially to create less touchpoints between guests and staff throughout the building. We are no longer touching the patrons, cash or cards or anything like that.”
Albers said the decision to go cashless is not an outlier. More and more venues across the country have made similar choices.
“It’s just kind of an industry-standard,” Albers said. “We have been visiting with a lot of other NBA buildings, a lot of stadiums, a lot of high-level arenas that are all going toward this sort of cashless payment system. We just thought with COVID changing everything anyways, this was a good time to implement a change for when people came back.”
Albers said they realize not everyone has access to credit or debit cards or just do not feel comfortable using them. So they do have options for them as well.
“We have prepaid Visa Gift Cards at our box office. People can take their cash there. Exchange your $20 bill for a $20 gift card. It works just like a credit card basically. We specifically chose that because if they spend the entire $20 at our venue, they are able to go spend it somewhere else. We also got a lot of comments from people not wanting to let people track their purchases. If you are paying cash for the Visa Gift Card, they are not tracking your purchase. It’s still kind of like using cash but through a card that’s not connected to your account.”
The Paycom Center officially reopened in April and started hosting events immediately and the cashless policy has been in effect. While Albers said the process has gone well, they have had to make a few alterations to the policy.
After the first couple of events in the spring, those who work in the foodservice departments voiced concerns about not being able to get tips like they had in the past. Even though the system they have in place does allow patrons to tip using their cards, Paycom will allow cash to be used in special situations.
“We did hear and understand the feedback after our first couple of events,” Albers said. “We have adapted our policy to allow bartenders and those people to allow cash tip jars. Because the cash goes directly to them and does not go through our system. If they are comfortable with handling cash, for tips, we do adjust to allow cash for tips. “
Albers said she envisions the cashless policy to be with Paycom even after the COVID-19 has pandemic has subsided.
“We do not plan to go back,” Albers said. “We have made the full change and this is going to be the new standard.”
Story & Photo by Michael Kinney