Md. stadium capacity limits are easing, but don’t expect big crowds right away

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If your idea of a perfect evening is to take in a ballgame with a large crowd of hometown fans, last week’s headlines brought a wave of good news.

First, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) lifted capacity requirements for ticketed sports venues. Prince George’s County, home to the Washington Football Team and the Bowie Baysox, followed the state’s lead almost immediately.

Just days later, Hogan signed an order aligning the state’s mask mandate with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing fully-vaccinated people to engage in most activities without a face covering.

Despite the flurry of activity — coming with baseball season in full swing — experts say it could be a long time before Maryland’s teams play in stadiums filled with maskless, cheering fans.

For starters, the City of Baltimore and Prince George County still have mask requirements for outdoor venues like Oriole Park, M&T Bank Stadium and FedExField.

Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) reaffirmed the city’s order on Monday, noting that a majority of residents still have not been vaccinated.

In addition, Baltimore law limits stadiums to 50% capacity.

And like many teams across Major League Baseball, the Orioles have voluntarily capped attendance at 25%, meaning only about 11,000 fans can attend the club’s home games.

“Fans will be required to wear a mask covering the nose and mouth at all times,” an advisory on the Orioles website states. “Fans may eat and drink at their pod seating locations and only remove their mask while actively eating and drinking.”

On top of all the municipal and team-imposed restrictions, experts say, there is another reason why packed stadiums with maskless fans won’t likely be a feature of Maryland’s sporting scene for a while: fans aren’t ready for it.

“How comfortable will people feel sitting next to someone they don’t know?” said Tom Threlkeld, a Montgomery County resident and the former editor of the DC Pro Sports Report. “They have no idea if this person has been vaccinated, and they have no idea if this person has been taking precautions.”

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, part of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said ballpark managers will be taking numerous steps to create an environment where fans feel comfortable — but he expects the process to be gradual.

“It’s not a flip-the-switch and we’re there instantaneously,” he said. “That’s where the unique challenge is going to be with this.”

Hasseltine expects the public’s attitude to vary greatly, from those who say “the door’s open, let’s go through it,” to others are “super-, ultra-hesitant.”

“We just went through a year-plus of ‘mask on, stay away,’ and it’s going to take a period of time for a good chunk of our population to feel comfortable being in and around people,” he added.

Dr. Jeffrey Elting, a physician who served as the head of bioterrorism response for the Washington, D.C. Hospital Association, noted that attending a baseball game “is both indoors and outdoors.”

Fans have to wade through large crowds to get to their seats, and they encounter people whenever they use the restroom or visit the concession stand.

“That’s a clustered indoor activity,” he said. “Who the hell is going to check who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated when you walk through the turnstiles? … It’s a tough question how they’re going to balance that.”

Threlkeld attended Game 1 of the Capitals-Bruins on Saturday — his first in-person sporting event in more than a year. A lifelong sports fan, he said it was both exhilarating and strange to be in an arena with thousands of strangers.

“It was exciting. It was thrilling to be back and around other people — even if it wasn’t nearly as many as usual — who were into the thrill of a live sporting event,” he said. “It was a blast.”

But Threlkeld and Gil Fried, a sports attorney and professor at the University of New Haven, both expressed concern about the potential for conflict — particularly among fans who over-indulge. They said coughing and loud cheering are likely flash-points.

“I can absolutely see this leading to confrontations in the stands,” Threlkeld said.

Said Fried: “One of the things I tell my students in classes: there’s a constitutional right to be an idiot, and people exercise that right on a daily basis.”

Several Major League Baseball teams have announced plans to ease capacity restrictions gradually. The Nationals and Phillies expect to be at full-capacity by the second weekend in June.

The NFL’s Ravens and Washington Football Team hope to be at at 100% by the time professional football returns in September.

But even that may not be long enough for parents to feel comfortable bringing children to games.

Since 12-to-16-year-olds have only recently been cleared to get the vaccine — and younger children are not currently eligible — many parents are hesitant to engage in gatherings among strangers.

“Children do get sick,” said Dr. Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, on Bloomberg Radio on Friday.

“Adults have had much worse outcomes when it comes to COVID than kids, but if you look at the numbers, about 22 million children have gotten sick from COVID,” she added. “And if you look at the rates of hospitalization, it’s worse than H1N1 flu in 2009 for kids, so it’s… not as bad as adults, but kids do get sick.”

Like Hasseltine, Threlkeld predicts the return to the pre-pandemic stadium experience will occur in slow-motion, if — for no other reason — that no ballpark wants to become known as “a Petri-dish of COVID.”

“Until coronavirus is kind of like the flu, I think this is going be an issue,” Threlkeld concluded. “You can say we’re open 100%. But that doesn’t mean you can get everyone back in. I think there will be people who just aren’t ready for it yet.”

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