When the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs this year, New York State tried an experiment: letting a limited number of fans into the outdoor stadium for its two home games.
Governor Andrew Cuomo says restrictions on those fans helped prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are now going to expand the Buffalo Bills example,” the governor said Wednesday. “Any large stadium or arena, hockey, basketball, football, soccer, baseball, musics shows, performances, any large arena can open on February 23. Their plan has to be approved by the State Department of Health.”
The first indoor test will be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on February 23, when the Nets host Golden State.
Once again, there will be strict guidelines for venues. All arenas with an ability to host 10,000 fans or more will be limited to 10% capacity. Face masks must be worn at all times, each attendee must get tested within 72 hours prior to the game, and seating will be spaced out once inside.
“So, the numbers in New York City are on the decline because of the hard work of New Yorkers,” said Dr. Dara Kass of Columbia University Medical Center and a Yahoo News contributor. “How we open venues are entirely indoors or mostly indoors depends on the practices of the venue and also what happens when you get inside. If we are asking people to stay masked up and stay socially distanced and it is a venue with good ventilation, we can start there.”
Experts say what is critically important is not just the guidelines to get fans inside the arenas, but what the rules are once inside, including using the restrooms and buying concessions.
“We would need to see transparent and consistent guidelines for all venues in New York City,” Dr. Kass said. “To describe exactly how they are going to keep people safe inside the venue, not just the number of people inside, but what the rules will be as they move through the spaces.”
The experiment on opening venues bodes well for baseball season, which begins in April. Cuomo was asked what would happen if Citi Field and Yankee Stadium are still being used as mass vaccination sites, and the governor’s staff said they will work with the teams to find a solution.
Gene Gerovich, the owner of "That Bar" on Fifth Avenue near Barclays Center, feels cautiously optimistic after Cuomo’s announcement. His bar was packed before and after games before the pandemic.
Gerovich rebranded his bar last November to offer more food options in hopes of staying afloat amid ever-changing guidelines. But he said with limited indoor capacity for restaurants, the return of fans won’t really help surrounding businesses like his.
“We can only fill the place with 20 people based on our capacity. So financially, it’s not going to be a huge windfall, but it’s nice to feel alive and to have sports here again," he said.
The permission of fans at sporting events comes as the NBA and NHL continue to face the task of preventing their players from getting COVID-19.
The NHL has been struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks of late. Six teams - the Vegas Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche, the New Jersey Devils, the Buffalo Sabres, the Minnesota Wild and the Philadelphia Flyers - have had games postponed this month due to multiple players on their teams being in the league's COVID-19 protocols. The Devils alone had 19 players in the league's COVID-19 protocols as of Monday (that number was reduced to 17 on Wednesday), and have not played a game since January 31.
The NBA has fared better in recent weeks after a rocky start. Only two NBA players have tested positive since January 19 - including one from the latest round of testing - after 27 tested positive between January 6 and January 19.
The Nets have been without Kevin Durant for two separate stretches this season because of the NBA's health and safety protocols. He is currently in his second stretch of sitting out, having not played since last Friday. He tested positive for COVID-19 last March, while he was rehabbing a knee injury.
The Knicks had their first player - guard Frank Ntilikina - enter the league's COVID-19 protocols on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Shannan Ferry and Justin Izzo.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.