The ice rink plan would cover the rink with vinyl flooring and hospital beds. Derek Brumby/Getty Images

Canada has managed to flatten the curve in new Covid-19 cases, but one group has a backup plan for converting skating and hockey rinks to medical facilities.

For now, Canada has far fewer coronavirus cases than most major countries, most notably its neighbor to the south. But that hasn’t stopped experts in building design, manufacturing and construction from working on a Plan B just in case, and it’s a very Canadian solution: Replace freezing indoor temperatures, ice skates and hockey sticks with hospital beds, vinyl flooring and sanitizing stations.

Kenny Smith, managing principal of engineering firm Integral Group, assembled a group of industry experts to create a plan to repurpose existing medium-sized ice arenas for health-care needs.  Across Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, there are about 97 municipally owned indoor rinks, according to the cities’ website listings. Based on the design, each rink would have the capacity to accommodate about 90 to 100 beds and could be converted in phases within one to two weeks if and when health-care response teams require them.

The move would follow similarly creative repurposing in countries that have faced on onslaught of Covid-19 patients. France, for example, converted a high-speed train into a mobile hospital. Some U.S. states have set up dozens of modular treatment units in parking lots and turned recreational vehicles into temporary housing. Singapore and Dubai have taken a more lavish approach and are keeping quarantine patients in 5-star hotels.

So far in Canada, hospitals across the country have already freed up beds by postponing non-emergency surgeries. As a result, some provinces have more open beds than they did pre-pandemic. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, had more than 1,900 critical care beds available as of April 29, according to the Ontario Ministry of Health. The average hospital occupancy rate was 75% in Ontario, compared with 96.2% before Covid-19 measures. That’s because a predicted surge didn’t materialize after Canada imposed a nationwide lockdown. As of May 3, Canada had 59,474 confirmed cases and 3,682 deaths. Positive cases rose 27% from the previous week, compared with 35% the week before.

A Zamboni entrance becomes an ambulance drop off in the plan to repurpose Canada’s ice rinks. (Courtesy of Kenny Smith)

After settling into the “new normal” of working from home, Integral’s Smith started thinking about how his industry could make a difference to fight the virus. He said he received an overwhelmingly positive response after posting a message on LinkedIn asking for proactive ways to ease the strains on Canada’s health-care system by repurposing existing buildings.

“Everyone wanted to help,” said Smith, whose wife is a nurse. “A lot of people were simply looking for an applicable platform that they could lend their help to. These were individual responses that represented companies. That's a very important distinction. This was not a response by a set of companies.”

The group decided ice rinks was the best option — not only from a Canadian-identity perspective, but also as a cost-effective and locally abundant building prototype. They also wanted to give governments and health-care providers flexible options based on their needs, instead of larger facilities with thousands of beds like the ones built in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated.

Smith says his group’s proposal is also flexible enough for other countries to replicate and apply to other types of buildings. Health Infrastructure in New South Wales, Australia, is examining the plan, he said.

A possible design for hospital beds on top of an ice rink. (Courtesy of Kenny Smith)

For Canada, ice rinks make the most sense given how the arenas are typically structured, Smith said. Most rinks have five consistent doorways: the main entrance, Zamboni entrance, mechanical room entrance and two fire exits. These would be used to create safe circulation for patients, health-care professionals and supplies. The main ice rink area would be used as the patient treatment facility, after the floor is covered with a rolled vinyl material and welded seams overlaid with plywood substrate. This protects the floors from puncturing the cooling coils on the rink surface and also ensures cleaning and infection control procedures can be observed. A rink would hold 90 to 100 beds within pre-fabricated modular pods. Each pod will have three hard partitions, a ceiling and a curtained entryway.

The design also includes specific areas to address Covid-19 requirements — hand-washing and sanitizing stations, phone and video booths for clinical staff use, visiting areas from behind a glass and multiple nursing stations.

The group is continuing to talk with the Canadian government and emergency response units at some Canadian hospitals, but Smith is hoping for the best-case scenario: never having to put the plan into action.

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