The arena floor of Temple University’s cavernous Liacouras Center is lined with hospital cots that sit below banners touting basketball championships. A cluster of wheelchairs sits by the loading dock, next to a concessions sign advertising Miller Lite specials. The electronic signs at the will-call box office are still blinking with reminders to “please show your ID,” but the only people regularly coming to the arena these days are the workers who helped transform Temple’s campus arena into a field hospital this weekend.

City officials say they hope the Liacouras Center never has to be used to treat patients. But if a surge of COVID-19 cases floods Philadelphia’s hospitals in the coming weeks, the arena has beds for more than 200 patients and potentially more, said Adam Thiel, the city’s fire commissioner and director of emergency operations.

Members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 transform the Liacouras Center into a federal medical station on the campus of Temple University.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 transform the Liacouras Center into a federal medical station on the campus of Temple University.

Many questions around the use of the facility remain unanswered, Thiel said. It’s unclear whether the arena will be used to treat COVID-19 patients or patients with less medically pressing issues who still need hospital care. It’s also unclear what level of care will be available at the field hospital, he said — that’s dependent on who is available to staff the hospital.

Thiel called for volunteers from the city’s Medical Reserve Corps, which has already staffed the COVID-19 testing site in South Philadelphia, to sign up to work at the site. He also said it’s possible some area hospitals might assign doctors to the Liacouras Center.

“When it will be ready will largely depend on staffing,” Thiel said. “Right now, we don’t need it to be ready.”

Temple Health spokesperson Jeremy Walter said discussions about how to staff the Liacouras Center were ongoing. The health system has been rearranging staff to accommodate COVID-19 patients, he said. Some Temple staffers who don’t usually work at its hospital — such as office-based community physicians — have been redeployed to the hospital, he said. The university also has set aside dormitory space for healthy employees who don’t want to go home after working in COVID-19 units.

The field hospital’s equipment is federally funded, and members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1, a disaster response team deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, set up beds over the weekend.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel at a news conference inside the Liacouras Center, which has been transformed into a makeshift hospital for overflow patients.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel at a news conference inside the Liacouras Center, which has been transformed into a makeshift hospital for overflow patients.

Liacouras Center staffers helped ready the center as shipments of beds and other medical equipment arrived, running forklifts and setting up electrical connections, said Joe Sheridan, the center’s general manager. If the arena does become a field hospital, he said, staffers would work only outside of the areas being used to treat patients. Most of the staff has been working from home, he said.

“We’re happy to be in a position to help,” he said.

The center was repurposed just days after the city said negotiations had failed to reopen the vacant Hahnemann University Hospital for quarantine space, after its owner, Joel Freedman, said he would rent the building to the city for nearly $1 million a month. Mayor Jim Kenney said Freedman was “trying to make a buck” off the crisis.

“We’re no longer pursuing Hahnemann,” Thiel said. “We’re really focused on the things we can do vs. the things we can’t.”

Thiel said it was crucial that Philadelphians continue to stay home as much as possible to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Strict social distancing and self-isolation could mean the city never has to open the field hospital, he said.

“It’s another thing we hope we’ll never have to use,” he said. “But for that to happen, we need everybody’s help.”