The summer of 2020 felt very different than most other summers. Of course, there would not be any big family vacations or afternoons spent at the pool with friends, but the pandemic took one of our nation’s most cherished summer traditions away from us: summer nights at the ballpark.
Yes, we Nationals fans were able to tune into Bob and FP’s broadcast for each game, but it just simply wasn’t the same. I just couldn’t help but miss going down to Nationals Park, picking up dinner from whatever Nats Dogs stand was closest to my seat, and keeping score in my Bob Carpenter scorebook while enjoying the game. After hearing the news in the past few days that fans in Philadelphia, Boston, and Ohio would be able to return to a limited capacity baseball stadium, I was disappointed when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday that as of now, fans would not be allowed to attend games at Nationals Park.
It’s very important to recognize that the pandemic is still ongoing, and has taken the lives of over 500,000 Americans to date. With the emergence of new variants of Covid-19, which could potentially prove to be deadlier and able to spread easier, there is potential risk in opening the stadium to fans now. It’s also important to recognize that no plan to allow fans back into Nationals Park would instantly restore the electric atmosphere we were so lucky to experience during the 2019 postseason. But there is ample reason to believe that safety precautions would allow for fans to safely return to the park, as we can look to other states opening the doors to their football stadiums for the 2020 NFL season.
Let’s first look at the state of Covid-19 in the DC metro area – and to say the least, it is very promising for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy in the relatively near future. Cases nationwide have been dropping since a peak in early January. Maryland’s and the District’s test positivity rate is way below the national average, and while Virginia’s is higher, the Hampton Roads, Southside, and Richmond areas of the state have the highest number of cases per 100,000 residents, not the immediate DC suburbs. The three jurisdictions have relatively low rates of vaccinations, but that will soon change after yesterday’s promising announcement that a third approved vaccine will allow there to be resources for every American adult to get their shot by the end of May. We won’t be able to return to pre-pandemic normalcy until we reach herd immunity, which would require between 70% to 90% of the population to be vaccinated. As 15% of the population has already received a vaccine, we still have a ways to go. Still, things are looking up as long as every American gets their safe and effective vaccine, which is simply the only way to end this pandemic.
Even without herd immunity, however, it is possible to let fans back into Nationals Park. The stadium has had many public functions since the pandemic began, as a food distribution site for Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen, a polling station during the 2020 election, and as a Covid-19 testing site itself. With the proper safety precautions, the Nationals can and should open the stadium to fans, restoring the stadium to its normal function. Fans are already allowed back into Nationals Spring Training games at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which also moonlights as a public Covid-19 testing site for the state that has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic. While the city and the team can use the Spring Training stadium as a model for reopening Nationals Park, it might be a better idea to look away from safety precautions in Florida, which are notoriously lax. Instead, let’s look to Buffalo, New York, where the state was able to open Bills Stadium for the NFL playoffs.
Coming off their best season in a very long time and sporting a very devoted fan base who had clamored to see their team make it far in the playoffs for years, there was pressure on New York state government to open Bills Stadium. They were able to, and we should be using their model for Nationals games. Fans who were able to get tickets had to prove a negative test for Covid-19 before the game; the 1.5% of those who had tickets were turned away from the game. The stadium, which normally fits over 70,000, only made tickets available to 6,700, a tad less than 10% capacity. Fans were required to wear masks at all times during the game (essentially a way to warm your face in the freezing western New York winter), and were assigned ten-minute increments to arrive at the stadium to avoid crowding at the gates. Thermal imaging at the entrances caught anyone who may have a fever, the vendors went completely cashless, and fans were required to stay in two or four seat “pods”, socially distanced from other attendees.
Not one outbreak was tied to the Bills games.
New York state is now implementing this same strategy for Knicks, Nets, Rangers, and Islanders games, which is a more dangerous situation. Unlike baseball and football, hockey and basketball are played in indoor arenas. I don’t think it is close to being time for fans to be back at hockey and basketball games – disappointing, yes, but until we are closer to herd immunity, it’s simply too early. But there is no reason why we can’t implement a similar strategy allowing fans into outdoor stadiums so long as they can prove a negative test at the gate and adhere to very strict safety protocols. There is really no reason why DC can allow indoor dining, a much, much riskier behavior, but explicitly bar fans from watching baseball socially distanced in an outdoor stadium.
Recognizing the risks associated with the new variants of Covid-19 are very important – the pandemic is still raging on, albeit at a slower pace than it was at the beginning of the year. All of this depends on what public health experts say; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading voice in the public health community during this pandemic (and who is definitely not in contention for the fifth spot in the rotation this year) has stated himself that fans should be able to return to sporting events this summer. Hopefully, DC’s experts agree – how nice would it be to have some sense of normalcy restored in our lives this summer by being able to spend time at the ballpark?