“We are assessing the prevalence and impact of new, more transmissible viral strains on the progress we are making through our various public health measures, including our vaccination program, and expect to be able to get you some word on ticket sales for fans in the middle of the month,” wrote Christopher Rodriguez, the city’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
“With you, we are looking forward to fans returning to Nats Park. Answers as to how many and when are still premature.”
The Nationals’ proposal was in line with what other MLB teams have had approved by local or state officials, according to a person with knowledge of the process who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. The proposal, that person said, asks to have the maximum number of fans who could sit in small pods that would be spaced six feet apart in all directions.
A Nationals spokeswoman declined to say the capacity the team has proposed in its discussions with the Mayor’s office. The Nationals’ official comment was that “we are working closely with the city and will continue to do so.”
The basic model, with fans wearing masks in pods, and with unused seats blocked off with tarps or zip ties, is already being tested at spring training sites in Florida and Arizona. On Sunday, the Nationals played in front of about 1,500 fans in Jupiter, Fla. On Monday, they hosted fans at up to 18 percent capacity at their park in West Palm Beach, where the facility doubles as a public coronavirus testing center. MLB had to approve each spring training stadium’s seating plan and is working with teams, such as the Nationals, that remain in limbo for the regular season.
Since spring training began in February, a handful of prominent Nationals have not been shy about their preference.
Starter Max Scherzer on Feb. 19: “The fans should be in the stands, one-hundred percent. You can do it. We’re in outdoor stadiums. Fans need to be allowed to come into the ballpark. We can engineer a way around it. I don’t see any reason why not. So, hopefully, cooler heads prevail, we look at this pragmatically and we get some National fans out there.”
And first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Feb. 25: “I know every state, city, they have their own rules for different reasons, and that’s way above my pay grade. But if you can safely implement it, or if you can start it at 10 or 15 percent and see how that goes for a couple weeks or a month, and then gradually build up, I think it would be good for everybody.”
And Manager Dave Martinez on Tuesday: “We want them in the stadium. We want to play in front of our fans. It would be nice to get them in there, and get them in there for Opening Day.”
There are two complicating and connected factors when comparing D.C. to other baseball cities: The NFL’s fan rollout and local rules. There is no NFL team under D.C.’s jurisdiction. And because the Washington Capitals and Wizards have not had fans, there are not yet local rules for attendance at pro sporting events.
Since the Washington Football Team plays in Landover, Md., D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the city had nothing to do with the decision to allow fans in the fall. November. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made that call. But Ohio, for example, can pull from NFL experience with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals when it considers fans and stadium capacities for the Indians and Reds. It’s also helpful precedent for any city or state that wants to keep fans churning through the gates.
On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that the Indians and Reds can soon fill up to 30 percent of their ballparks. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, two Pennsylvania cities that had NFL teams hosting fans this fall — when cases were higher and vaccines a still daydream — recently announced the Phillies and Pirates can have fans to start the year. The Phillies even announced Tuesday that, similar to the Pirates, they’ll have about 8,000 fans at Citizens Bank Park.
In New York, the Yankees and Mets will be able to have their ballparks at up to 10 percent capacity. (Fans are required to get a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of the game they are attending.) In Texas, where fans watched the National League Division Series and World Series last October, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has approved 50 percent capacity. It’s unlikely that, given MLB’s own protocols, the Houston Astros or Texas Rangers will approach that number right away. But state law indicates they could.
This all leaves the Nationals in a dwindling group. They worked with the city this past summer to relax a specific coronavirus regulation for the team. But the request had a limited effect on the general public. The Nationals wanted their players, coaches and staff to be able to go straight from home to work during D.C.’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone who was potentially exposed to the virus.