With MLS moving to home-stadium play on Wednesday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber says teams will be free to explore COVID-19 management plans to put fans in the stands. But will they fly with local officials?
Garber was quite clear when announcing Phase 1 of the revised MLS schedule: it was not mandatory that teams work to bring fans back into stadiums pending approval from local health officials, and any COVID-19 management plan would need to also be approved by MLS officials as well:
“There are a number of states in our country that are allowing a limited number of fans to sports events today,” Garber said during a call with media. “Those clubs that are interested in welcoming fans where their states allow, we’ll consider it after they submit a plan and that plan is following the guidelines of our infectious disease doctor and following the protocols established by the states and by the CDC.
“In the event that it passes [those criteria] then we’ll consider it. No plan has been approved to date. That process is just starting. I don’t anticipate that it is going to be a lot of markets in phase one. That process is going to continue as more and more states either decide to allow fans for sports events or some states that have decided to allow them might change their mind.”
That’s not strictly true: a COVID-19 management plan to allow fans into Toyota Stadium for the first two FC Dallas games is in place. Attendance at the first FC Dallas game will be limited to 5,110 fans, and these fans will need to meet state of Texas mandates regarding mask usage. The team warns that face masks must be worn at all times while on Toyota Stadium property, including parking lots, and the team will set up socially distanced seating. It will be a cashless and paperless experience: no paper tickets, no cash transactions at concession stands.
Other teams have submitted COVID-19 management plans to allow fans back into stadiums: Minnesota United, for instance, submitted a plan to the state in conjunction with the Minnesota Twins and other pro sports teams. in Columbus, the Crew submitted a plan calling for between 3,465 to 5,875 fans at 19,968-capacity Mapfre Stadium, with groups of fans six feet apart. But experts say that fans in the stands don’t represent the biggest risk; it’s waiting in line for concessions, and waiting in line to enter the stadium and leaving the stadium. Most plans address this by requiring fans to enter at a specific gate and limit their movements to specific areas of a stadium.
But the Crew plan will undoubtedly hit some regulatory blowback: it allows for tailgating and recommends, but does not mandate, face masks in the parking lots.
And while moving away from the Disney World bubble entails some risk, MLS’s operational plan does have support from experts like Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert who is chairman of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, per AP:
He pointed to the league’s mandate that teams take charter flights or buses to the games, with no overnight hotel stays. That will cut down on the contact the teams have with the public. The league’s rigorous testing program also should help prevent outbreaks.
“I think the major difference between what MLS does and what baseball is doing is, let’s say Atlanta United was playing in New York. They’re flying in the morning, they’re playing and they’re flying back home. So they’re not staying there overnight, there’s no risk of the players going to hotels, staying at an unknown place, having to get meals in a restaurant or go out to eat,” del Rio said. “They’re not having back-to-back games. And that will give them the opportunity to test them again before the next game. So I think there’s some fundamental differences.”
However, he added that players will need to be diligent in protecting themselves away from the team.
“I think that’s where the issues are. And that’s why I think it’s very going to be very important that the players have the discipline and have the education about those risks and try to avoid that, because the reality is those are the things you cannot control,” del Rio said. “So it’s less about the bubble or the market; it is more about what happens outside of those settings.”
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