Safe or superspreader? Why the Texas Rangers are opening their doors to full capacity Monday despite the risks

ARLINGTON — Rangers ownership built Globe Life Field to be a national showcase, to help put the team on center stage in baseball and the sports world. The ballpark will become that showcase Monday, but probably not under the circumstances the owners intended.

After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the American way of life, the Rangers’ decision to open their stadium to 100% of capacity makes them the test case for the next steps in the return to normalcy.

They are attempting to be the first American pro sports team to allow a full house. If the 40,518-seat stadium sells out, it is expected to be the largest publicly documented attendance at an event since the virus shuttered the country in March of last year. There were about 1,000 tickets left as of Saturday.

All eyes will be on the stadium, though not necessarily on the action on the field between the Rangers and Toronto.

Can the game be pulled off safely without becoming a superspreader event among fans or players, whose families may be among the crowd?

Or, even as vaccination rates go up, is it too early and merely a risky money grab for a team without much on-field optimism?

After a sharp decline, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have started to climb again as more contagious variants spread. The increase prompted the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, last week to say she had feelings of “impending doom” about another surge. She urged the public to “please hold on a little while longer” and continue to follow public health guidelines.

COVID-19 cases have ticked up in Dallas County as well, but they remain on the decline in Tarrant County, according to CDC data. Globe Life Field is in Tarrant County.

“We know there is going to be a lot of attention on us,” said Rob Matwick, the Rangers’ executive vice president of business operations.

The move has the backing of Gov. Greg Abbott, who opened Texas to 100% without restrictions last month, and of a large number of fans. Abbott is expected to be at Globe Life Field on Monday and to take part in the festivities.

And then there are local public health experts, the CDC’s social-distancing recommendations and, well, the president of the United States.

“That’s a decision they made,” President Joe Biden said in an ESPN interview Wednesday. “I think it’s a mistake. They should listen to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, the scientists and the experts. But I don’t think it’s responsible.”

Fauci is the nation’s top infectious-disease expert.

“We obviously have no control over either the public health officials or the state of Texas,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN on Thursday. “We worked closely with the Rangers and encouraged them to adopt the additional safeguards like masks, and the Rangers were extremely cooperative in that regard.”

It was an acknowledgment, not an endorsement.

Previous events

The Rangers are moving ahead with the decision based on a unique confluence of conditions.

They have experience hosting numerous events, albeit at reduced occupancy, since last May that included the World Series and the National Finals Rodeo. They had significant demand for opening day tickets as part of season-ticket packages for their new stadium in 2020, which fans were asked to roll over to 2021 because of the pandemic. They can open the roof and “garage doors” at the ballpark to increase ventilation, and the ventilation system already uses highly rated MERV 13 air filters.

They have already moved nearly 450,000 fans through the stadium for the earlier events, including a crowd of 17,587 for a day of college baseball in February. That amounts to 43.4% of the stadium’s capacity, though it is unclear if that many people were ever in the building at the same time. Tickets were sold for the day, but three games were played over the course of the day.

Rangers officials have prepared.

And they believe this is essentially a one-time event, because ticket sales drop sharply after opening day and usually until school is out in the summer.

The Rangers will add several sections featuring socially distanced pod seating after opening day, which will slightly reduce capacity. While team officials won’t reveal advance ticket sales, they indicated they expected the stadium to be about half full for the games against Toronto that follow on Tuesday and Wednesday.

For the Rangers, full occupancy allows them to meet a contract with fans that has sat in limbo for more than a year. With demand for the grand opening of the stadium high before 2020, the Rangers sold lots of mini-ticket plans that included the ability to buy tickets for the opener. When the pandemic forced clubs to shut down to fans, the Rangers urged fans to roll their ticket commitments into 2021. Most did, with the promise that the home opener was still included. Matwick stressed that the club was working on an individual basis with customers who are still not comfortable coming to the park.

But there is more to it than that. Baseball, as an industry, claimed losses of more than $2 billion last year. Teams took financial baths, resulting in pay and job cuts. The Rangers largely avoided mass job eliminations, but employees were among the first to take a pay cut. There are finances to recoup.

And while it may make more sense for other teams to simply keep increasing occupancy as the year goes on, the Rangers stand to host their biggest crowds early. Opening day is almost always a guaranteed sellout. The novelty of the stadium may keep attendance above 20,000 per game early in the season.

Also, the highest-profile opponents visit early. San Diego, the youngest, most exciting team in the majors, is here next weekend. The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, with the largest fan bases, visit in late April and May. If there is money to be made, it’s early.

As the season progresses and the team, as expected, falls off, there will be little demand. The schedule is also particularly unattractive for big crowds. The Rangers are not at home on Memorial Day, July Fourth or Labor Day, all big baseball days.

With a rebuilding team, which is coming off four consecutive losing seasons and projected to have a franchise-worst fifth consecutive loser, interest wanes quickly.

‘Voluntary compliance’

Texas Rangers fans and players stand for the national anthem before their game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The teams were playing in an exhibition game, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)Texas Rangers fans and players stand for the national anthem before their game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The teams were playing in an exhibition game, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)(Tom Fox)

Colorado’s Coors Field currently has the second-largest allowed attendance in MLB at 21,470, which is 42.6% of its capacity. Houston is allowing up to 50% (about 20,600). Most other stadiums are between 20% and 33% but are open to allowing larger crowds as local threat levels drop.

The Rangers will also go above the State of Texas’ recommended precautions, mandating that fans wear masks except when actively eating and drinking. Fans who don’t comply will be warned first and then subject to ejection.

“Based on our experience at past events, we expect there to be good cooperation and adherence,” Matwick said. “Our guest services staff is well-trained. We always seek voluntary compliance when a rule is not being followed, and that’s almost always what happens.”

To fully enforce such a rule, though, forces a lot of seasonal employees, many of whom are retired, to make judgment calls. A fan has a beer in his hand — who doesn’t at a baseball game? Is that actively drinking?

TV shots from the Rangers’ exhibition games Monday and Tuesday against Milwaukee, which drew a total of 23,770 fans, showed plenty of people with food in the vicinity but unmasked.

“It is not a game unless we are eating and drinking at that game,” said Erin Carlson, director of graduate public health programs at the University of Texas at Arlington and a lifelong Rangers fan. “So to put a mask requirement in place for a stadium is a perfectly noble intention. But the reality of it is that fans will not be wearing masks at the stadium because the stadium experience involves eating and drinking throughout the game. So we’ll be unmasked and seated with inches of distance between us and the next person, while we are yelling and singing.

“That’s a pretty high-risk activity, I would say.”

A look at allowed capacity for opening day in 2021.A look at allowed capacity for opening day in 2021.(Michael Hogue)

The Rangers say that except when fans are in the seating bowl on opening day, they will meet the CDC’s recommended 6-foot social distancing recommendation. That includes ingress and egress, concessions (all cashless) and lines for restrooms. There will be no standing-room tickets sold for opening day, and fans will not be allowed to congregate in the many areas designed for just that in the new stadium.

“We are also adhering to the MLB’s health and safety protocols,” Matwick said, “which leave the number of fans permitted to state or local guidance.”

Those protocols are not strict enough, according to some medical experts.

The Texas Medical Association has deemed going to a sports stadium among the riskiest activities during the pandemic, along with going to a bar and attending a religious service with 500 or more people.

The CDC says people attending a game should remain 6 feet away from those outside their households and wear masks at all times. But, at full capacity, stadium seating does not allow for that much separation.

“It’s concerning, because that is not in accordance with current public health guidelines for stadium reopenings,” Carlson said.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card to be outdoors,” Carlson added. “We still have to have some distance, because even if we’re outdoors, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to have droplets coming from our lungs, through our mouths and outside. So if you’re in close enough proximity to breathe in those droplets, whether you’re indoors or whether you’re outdoors, you will be breathing in somebody else’s droplets.”

Masks reduce that risk, but Carlson doubts fans will be wearing masks in the stands.

Concerns hardly stop with the possibility that this could turn into a superspreader event for fans.

Outbreak risks

The Texas Rangers have built plexiglass walls behind the dugouts as seen here before the Milwaukee Brewers exhibition game at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, Monday, March 29, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)The Texas Rangers have built plexiglass walls behind the dugouts as seen here before the Milwaukee Brewers exhibition game at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, Monday, March 29, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)(Tom Fox)

There is a strict set of protocols for MLB players and tiered staff to better isolate them, one of which is installing plexiglass plates over dugouts and bullpens to further separate players from fans. But players’ families are now allowed into stadiums. If they aren’t socially distanced, it could increase the possibility of a COVID outbreak running through a team’s clubhouse.

Outbreaks within clubhouses played havoc with last year’s early-season schedule. MLB has already postponed the season-opening series between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets because of “contact tracing within the Nationals organization.” Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association announced four positive tests for the week that ended Friday.

It was evidence of how fast things can change. The league had done a superb job of keeping the virus in check through spring training, with only 34 positives among 78,500 tests (0.04%) since intake testing before spring training.

The issue of players’ families’ safety was raised to MLB through the Players Association.

“I think there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that the joint committee is working on,” Rangers players rep Kyle Gibson said. “I think we’re throwing this all together really quick, and I think there’s probably multiple reasons for that. I think that both [MLB and the Players Association] are doing the best thing that they can do. Do I think there’s some logistical things that need to be addressed? One thousand percent. Do I think they’re all going to be addressed right away? Probably not.

“Both sides are working very hard,” he added. “Both sides are doing the best they can to make this as safe of a season as possible in certain regards. They’re trying to make it as fun for the fans as possible in all regards. And they’re trying to make sure they keep our families as safe as possible. They are juggling a lot of things.”

Stadium employees will also be required to wear face coverings. Gloves and face shields are available for employees who want them. Vaccinations are encouraged, but the Rangers can’t mandate them. Employees who are not comfortable returning to work do not have to, club officials said, but the officials didn’t indicate whether the employees’ positions would remain open to them.

“If I go to the game, that’s a special treat,” Carlson said. “That’s a couple of times during the season, but those families are at every game. The workers are at every game, and that increases your risk.”

Ultimately, the risk of opening a stadium at full capacity is unknown, because studies have not yet been conducted in those settings, said Dr. John Carlo, former medical director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.

He suggested fans assess their own personal risk and risk tolerance before attending a game. Can they afford to take several days off from work if they get sick? Do they have underlying conditions that can make symptoms severe or do they live with someone who does? Have they been vaccinated?

“If you have been fully vaccinated and you are concerned only about the risk to yourself, then go to the game and enjoy it. Live again,” Carlson said. “But if you have others in your life who have not been vaccinated, then that’s where we still need to be very vigilant.”

Twitter: @Evan_P_Grant, @akuchment

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