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O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) -- The St. Louis Blues won't be playing to an empty arena when they open their first homestand next week. The NHL team said Monday it will allow a very small crowd made up of medical workers and public safety employees who have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Blues are set to open the truncated schedule with two games at Colorado Wednesday and Friday, followed by a four-game homestand that begins Jan. 18 against the San Jose Sharks. The Blues plan to allow fewer than 300 fans. The team said it is working with health care systems and public safety organizations to identify front-line workers for January home games.

Invited fans will sit in "socially distanced seating pods" throughout the plaza level of the Enterprise Center, the team said. The opener also will include a puck drop honoring front-line workers.

"It's good news for everyone that Blues hockey is back home at Enterprise Center," Blues President of Business Operations and CEO Chris Zimmerman said in a statement. "We are proud to welcome this group of local heroes as our guests to the arena as a way to express our admiration and appreciation for their selfless work to keep the St. Louis area healthy and safe."

Face coverings will be required for all fans and staff, and cash will not be accepted in the building under new anti-virus protocols.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Monday cited 1,659 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, and three new deaths. All told, the state has reported 425,986 cases and 5,951 deaths since the pandemic began.

Hospitals remain dangerously close to capacity across the state. The health department said in-patient bed capacity statewide is at 22%. The northwestern part of the state has just 11% of in-patient beds available, and the Kansas City and southeastern areas are at 16%.

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