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Coronavirus: Pelicans owner Gayle Benson seeds $1M fund for workers following backlash on arena staff stance

The New Orleans Pelicans announced on Monday that owner Gayle Benson is donating $1 million to seed a fund to support service and hospitality industry workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement arrives days after a puzzling response from the team regarding salaries for staffers who are losing work amid the NBA shutdown.

The fund is called the Gayle Benson Community Assistance Fund and is enacted in coordination with the Greater New Orleans Foundation Partnership. The beneficiaries will be “nonprofits working to support those in the service and hospitality industry, among other nonprofit groups,” according to the announcement.

“We have been meeting and planning a response since the NBA’s announcement to suspend games,” Benson wrote. ... “We want to do our part to assist those that have been impacted in our community.”

Pelicans’ initial response drew criticism

The Pelicans announced the news three days after a Friday release applauding 19-year-old rookie Zion Williamson for pledging to pay the salaries for 30 days of Smoothie King Arena workers impacted by the NBA stoppage in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

[ Coronavirus: How the sports world is responding to the pandemic ]

Alongside praising Williamson, the Pelicans cited things being “complicated” as Benson and the team declined to guarantee arena-worker salaries while noting that they aren’t team employees.

The stance drew criticism as other ownership groups and NBA players pledged to pay arena-staffer salaries. It also elicited surprise as Benson is one of the most philanthropic owners in sports.

After catching heat for her initial response, Gaye Benson made a big pledge to help hospitality workers. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Monday’s release announced that Benson — who also owns the New Orleans Saints — will set up a fund separate from the GBCAF called the Arena Assistance Fund that will assist “those who are impacted by the NBA postponement of games.”

It also notes that pay won’t be guaranteed for Pelicans game-day employees beyond the remaining postponed games.

“Furthermore, all wages for Pelicans employees who work game days only will be guaranteed for the remaining postponed games,” the statement reads.

What’s next for the NBA season?

The NBA suspended its season last Wednesday as the pandemic worsened and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, setting off a series of suspensions and cancelations in the sports world.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced on Thursday that the suspension would likely last at least 30 days. With a Centers for Disease Control recommendation to halt events with more than 50 people for two months, the NBA is reportedly eyeing a return starting in mid-June at the earliest with a likelihood of playing in arenas without fans.

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