Back to the ballpark for some live action MLB
As a Canadian, living in Germany, I thought I'd share my experience about my first "post (can we call it post?) pandemic" trip back to the land of maple syrup, Tim Hortons and hockey. It's been nearly 2 years since my last visit, but here I am, writing to you from the Great White North. Just like so many out there, I wasn't sure what to expect upon my return home. With countries around the world reopening in different ways, we thought it'd be interesting to compare. Here goes...
In Canada, sporting events and some concerts are making a return, but they are still far from being back to normal. Outdoor venues are throwing some concerts and the hockey season will begin again in September in front of some crowds across the nation. There are, however, currently no major street festivals, parades or exhibitions which would normally fill a Torontonian's summer holiday.
Generally speaking, a visit home would include attending at least one professional sports game. Since baseball season is just kicking off, I scored some tickets for a Blue Jays game where things looked a little different, in more ways than one. It was my first time back at a major event since 2019 and it was interesting to observe what changed and what old habits we fell back into.
After an extended road trip south of the border, the Toronto Blue Jays packed their bags to return home in July. The Jays received a national interest exemption from the Canadian federal government to open the 2021 season back on their home turf and I got to experience one of their first games back since September 2019.
Let me root, root, root for the home team
It was finally time to get back to cheering on the boys in blue in our very own stadium. The retractable roof was open, making that evening’s game an open air event. Already a good start. We arrived about a half hour before the start of the game and I noticed that there was not much of a wait. In fact, it was pretty comparable to normal times, if not quicker to get through the gates than usual (which could be due to the drastic decrease in attendance). Smooth sailing.
When we entered the stadium, it felt just like the good ole days; bag checks and metal detectors at security, tickets scanned at the turnstile (digital tickets only!) and presto, we were in! Since only mobile tickets were accepted, contact information for each fan was automatically provided for contact tracing purposes. Once inside the stadium, cheering from the fans was music to my ears, making me forget for a brief moment that there was less than half the normal capacity.
While the first few games didn't require anything other than a ticket to get into the game, the organisation just announced that beginning September 13, 2021, all fans will be required to show proof of being fully vaccinated or present a negative Covid-19 test. It seems like they are following suit with a lot of other event organisers who are deciding to implement this step for entry into their events.
Take me out with the crowd
With a normal capacity of around 50,000 fans, the Rogers Centre was only welcoming 15,000 to attend the first handful of Jays home games. In an attempt to make the stadium look a little less empty, some seats in the top bowl were occupied by cardboard cutouts (the worst group of fans to get ‘the Wave’ going). The bottom half of the stadium was the only area where fans were allowed with two different types of seating:
(1) the standard ballpark seating for the infield (with no social distancing) or
(2) physically distanced pods of up to 4 seats which occupied the outfield.
As a group of 8, we opted for the standard seating, which occupied ⅔ of the allotted seats. Sitting directly next to a stranger, I was reminded what it was like pre 2020, brushing elbows with your neighbour and making friendly conversation.
Safety regulations also required all spectators and staff to be wearing a face covering at all times, unless they were physically eating or drinking. However, by about the 3rd inning, there were definitely more and more fans bending these rules a little bit. Even with staff walking the aisles, ushering people to their seats, flashing their signs that read “please wear your mask”, it did not seem to entice the fans much. Most people I observed covered up only once they got up, but comfortably removed it once they got back to their seat.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack
When it came to the concession stands and merch stores, things were pretty much the same as I was used to them. All purchases had to be cashless payments, but other than that, there were no other major changes. I noticed only a few social distancing signs plastered on the ground, donned with the Blue Jays logo, reminding patrons to keep their distance. Other than these floor decals, there were no additional crowd control procedures in place. The reduced capacity definitely played a role in the short waiting times and reduced crowd in the halls. Fans were moving about freely in the halls as no one way systems were in place (a strategy some venues or events have adopted). There were noticeably more cleaning and sanitising systems throughout the venue and an overall shorter wait in the washrooms (a much welcomed change!).
The longer the game went on, the more things seemed to be ‘normal’ again. Fans were cheering. Concession staff were walking the stairs with the ice cold beer and popcorn. We high five'd and cheered loudly at the 8 runs the Jays scored, as well as every strikeout for Cleveland. And what would a baseball game be without the 7th inning stretch? This was back in full force too and the fans jumped to their feet to sing and stretch in unison.
There were an equal amount of high fives given and celebrations made in the dugout amongst the players, who were not required to mask up. However, the usual post game fan interactions are all on hold meaning fans couldn’t snap pics with their favourite player or get their jersey signed. Just a small price to pay to be able to get back to a live game in Covid times.
I do care if I never get back
As the game was winding down (Jays came out on top 8-6, just FYI), most fans stayed behind to the bitter end. On the occasion that one team is in a comfortable lead, fans tend to leave a little earlier to beat the crowd. This game was close by the 8th inning, so most fans hung in there until the final pitch.
Once again, the exit was just like normal-no staff to control the egress, no designated exits for each section. Fans were just filing out as easily as they came in.
All in all, it was a great feeling to get back to the live sports action (plus I will never get tired of this view☝️). The limited capacity at the game was the biggest change from the good old days of 2019 and it definitely made me feel more at ease. Although it looks like more rules will be coming in September to continue mitigating the risks at the games since some felt the current rules were a little lax.
Being back in the action made me believe that we really aren’t that far off from getting back into our routine of attending games, festivals or concerts, and I am keen for more. Bit by bit, events are adapting to the world we live in and making the necessary changes to get back to the events we’ve been wanting so badly. As long as we support the efforts put in place for us fans, we should be back to root root rootin' for the home team.