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Sport 'You have to start somewhere': Playoff plan provides a path for MLB to have fans in 2021

14:06  21 october  2020
14:06  21 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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ARLINGTON, Texas – It’s been eighth months since the United States began grappling with the novel coronavirus, mitigation ranging from casual to militant, lessons missed and learned along the way as the disease killed nearly a quarter-million Americans.

For Major League Baseball, returning to some semblance of a life it once knew – not just games, but fans, not just TV revenue, but paying customers – has been going on all of one week.

The league welcomed fans into the stands for the first time over seven games of the National League Championship Series and beginning Tuesday night with Game 1 of the World Series, will fill Globe Life Field to 25% capacity for the matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays.

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The roar of an actual crowd – even a diminished crowd – has been a balm for major league players forced to generate their own adrenaline through a 60-game season with no fans. And as deaths related to COVID-19 continue apace, the game is entering what may be a lengthy bridge period – easing out of a total shutdown, yet far away from full capacity with a widely-distributed vaccine likely not available until well into 2021.

a view of a baseball field: A view of Globe Life Field in the first inning of Game 1. © Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports A view of Globe Life Field in the first inning of Game 1.

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The parameters in place at this neutral site – zip ties around seats to keep fans distanced, mandatory mask requirements, abundant hand-washing stations will likely serve as a baseline for the 2021 season, which begins in April.

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Already, adjustments have been made.

When a gaggle of fans crowded around the first three rows beyond the fences in left and right field, the better to catch a home run ball or an interaction with a player, the host Texas Rangers and MLB roped off those seats for the final four games of the NLCS.

For all the protocols in place, there is always the unforeseen bottlenecks of potential spread, be it for batting-practice souvenirs or ones you pay for – tables in various souvenir shops often created a cluster of un-distanced fans checking sizes and prices.

Yet on balance, according to one expert, MLB’s first steps toward paying customers appear well-considered.

“You have to start somewhere,” says Jill Roberts, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida. “I would much rather see this, a small scale, than full capacity. It sounds like some thought has gone into it. Maybe there needs to be more, not to have packed shops and such. But a lot of times, we don’t know a lot of the factors until we try it.

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“Maybe the way to do it is small scale, and lessons are learned.”

The clock is ticking for an industry that lost billons of dollars in a season shortened from 162 to 60 games, and took in zero gameday revenue. With teams in 28 markets, MLB will have to abide by – or cut a deal with – health departments across the country to ensure fans in every stadium.

That’s a significant reason why the NL Division Series, NLCS and World Series are in the Lone Star State – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott flung the door open for fans in stands at sporting events in June, just before a summer spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state.

MLB’s Texas test case could potentially provide a path to fans on a wider scale in 2021. next season.

“Thus far the Rangers have executed the protocols well,” MLB said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports, “and the hard work of their staff is providing a road map for other Clubs to host fans next season.”

It has been an interesting sight, seeing fans spread about the stadium in pods of four. It’s clear many are families and close friends, as MLB intended when selling the tickets in quartets that can’t be individually resold. Mask compliance appears strong, at least on concourses and other common areas.

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“The masks, the distancing and the (hand-washing) ports – they have soap and everything. We’re OK. We feel safe,” says Albert Leza of Laredo, who attended Game 7 of the NLCS with his wife, Roxy. “We’re used to having more people around. We’d like to see more fans, but you can still have fun like this.”

Perhaps too much fun.

The Lezas were wearing their masks in their seats, but that piece of the equation has been much more hit-or-miss. MLB’s ticket policy this postseason states that masks must be worn “except while eating or drinking,” which could serve as a Texas-sized loophole for non-compliance, particularly at an event where alcohol is sold.

“I like to call it the Starbucks effect – people take their masks off and sit there for two hours, sipping a beverage,” says USF’s Roberts. “As long as you have alcohol in your hands, you can take your mask off. My concern would be getting into arguments, getting closer than you need to be.

“As long as you have beverages of any sort, people will have them to take their masks off. And the longer you take them off, the more dangerous you are.”

The coronavirus’ delayed and insidious nature means the league won’t be able to hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner once every fan has left the final game of the World Series. If there is a case of community spread at a playoff game, it likely will be weeks or even months before it is discovered, what with fans returning to towns across Texas and to home markets in California, Georgia and Florida.

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Roberts said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks data across states and likely would connect the dots back to Globe Life Field. MLB did not request specific information from ticket buyers for the purpose of contact tracing, but said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports that it will “assist public health authorities in any contact tracing by providing any information requested, including identifying information of ticket purchasers.”

Tickets to the World Series sold out the day they went on sale, and all NLCS games eventually sold out, the crowds ranging from 10,800 to the low 11,000s. The combination of a baseball-starved populace, the stakes of the playoffs and a new, $1.1 billion-stadium that even hardcore aficionados had never seen were all significant lures.

Come April, a far wider swath of fans, including casual ones, will be in play. To that end, MLB sent out an extensive survey to ticket-buyers that gauged their willingness to accept risk, which virus mitigation procedures (masks, hand-washing, distancing) they valued most, and even their political affiliations.

Naturally, progress on a vaccine would greatly affect any fan’s calculus. But the production line and distribution of the vaccine will likely unfold over much of 2021, which means these playoff games look, sound and feel to paying customers for at least another season.

“It’s going to be exciting,” says Rays shortstop Willy Adames, whose club played in fan-less San Diego in the ALCS, “to play again in front of fans.”

In a few weeks, we may learn how likely that is in 2021.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'You have to start somewhere': Playoff plan provides a path for MLB to have fans in 2021

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