No telling for sure yet when more than the occasional live sports will fill our TV screens and iPads again, but we do know it will be longer still before any of us will be welcomed back to sit inside Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, or TD Garden to watch.
COVID-19 forever may have changed the thought that nothing beats being there, although some of us were forced to abandon that quaint notion years ago when our wallets weren’t as full as our will.
Anticipating the day that the gates finally reopen, Delaware North, owner of the Garden, in the next 10-14 days will wrap up the first phase of a detailed “Safer Stadia” study aimed at outlining best practices for reopening the building on Causeway Street, as well as all arenas and ballparks.
Although nothing in the study has been finalized, and changes are inevitable once the games begin anew, here’s a look at some of the initial suggestions derived from the study:
▪ Controlled entry. To avoid a crush at the door and diminish risk of infection, gates will open earlier, perhaps three hours ahead of game time for suite-holders and two hours for general seating — an additional hour in each case.
▪ Ticket-holders could be required to reserve an entry time, designating, say, a 15-minute window of when to arrive at a particular gate. In this sense, getting into the Garden could be akin to boarding a plane, be it by zone or status, the latter defined by class of seat or brand loyalty in the form of season-ticket longevity.
▪ Unless or until a vaccine is developed, the days of a Garden sellout upward of 18,000 will be over. The aim of the “Safer Stadia” initiative, according to Todd Merry, Delaware North’s chief marketing officer, is to develop strategies that would allow for a maximum of 12,000-14,000 fans in the building.
“There’s no eliminating risk of infection entirely,” said Merry, who grew up in Duxbury and now works out of Delaware North headquarters in Buffalo. “But the idea will be to make people feel the experience is as safe as going to the supermarket, or going to Home Depot.”
Inside the Garden, signage will promote the building’s “Play It Safe” initiative, with an emphasis on sanitizing methods and health precautions.
▪ The mandatory wearing of masks. This will be de rigueur for all building staff, including ushers, concessionaires, and the like, and likely for all fans, other than when they are eating or drinking.
Prior to the pandemic, the idea of a building full of masked fans and employees would have been perceived as outrageous, risible, or perhaps a Halloween gag.
“Now,” Merry said, “if I go somewhere people aren’t wearing a mask, I think, ‘Wait, what’s wrong here, am I not supposed to wear one?’ It’s become weird not to wear a mask.”
▪ Body temperature readings. As Delaware North has opened some of its casinos (one in Arkansas, one soon in West Virginia) and card rooms (two in Florida), all guests have been required to have their temperatures scanned in order to be admitted. “No one’s failed yet,” noted Merry.
Similar protocol could be employed on Causeway Street, but that could depend on how effective the method has proven to be over the next few months.
“A lot of the prophylactic measures are additive,” he said. “Taking someone’s temperature on the way in . . . that doesn’t catch someone that is asymptomatic, and it’s not showing someone who might have just gotten over it. But it adds one other element, right? So if you do that plus masks, plus this, plus that, then suddenly it’s additive to where it’s as safe as any basic activity.”
▪ Amended protocols around the serving of food and beverages. Nothing much is expected to change operationally around the Garden’s dozens of concession stands, although a smaller attendance base should translate to less volume at each station. Added stands also could thin out lines.
Elsewhere, high-end clubs and suites most likely will eliminate most of the buffet all-you-can-eat opportunities. Want to dig into that yummy mound of mac and cheese on the buffet table? You bet, just grab that large spoon that countless other guests already have held in their bare hands. Get me Dr. Anthony Fauci, stat!
“I don’t think that style survives — just like many people don’t think buffet restaurants will survive — in groups that are mixed, or in large groups,” mused Merry. “I just don’t think that’s a realistic serving style anymore.”
An exception, said Merry, could be, say, a family that rents a suite, or a company that fills a box with workers from the same office. Such cohorts might believe they are at lesser risk for divvying up the goodies and pouring drinks.
Thus far, the data have not pointed to substantial mitigating factors at lines to the concessions stands, the bathrooms, or dealing with the rush to get out of the building once the game ends, Merry said.
According to Merry, the “Safer Stadia” initiative was undertaken at the behest of Jeremy Jacobs Jr., the company co-chief executive officer, at an exorbitant cost underwritten by a well-known beverage company, the name of which Merry said he was not authorized to identify.
The practices at the Garden will evolve and will be amended, said Merry, most of them to be implemented at Delaware North’s properties around the world. Delaware North owns the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in Falmouth, finally scheduled to open its doors June 8, albeit with its restaurant closed. Room service will be available, as well as takeout for guests who care to dine on the beach, maybe to listen to a Bruins playoff game with no fans in the stands.
Part of Delaware North’s hope is that its “Safer Stadia” practices can be adopted industry-wide, at arenas and ballparks around the world. All with the realization, and hope, that the more restrictive portions can be dropped if a vaccine is developed.
“It’s meant to be influencing information for a governor or a league commissioner, to be able to say, ‘Here’s a way from a quantitative, science-based approach for sports to come back,’ ” Merry said. “As much as it’s important to us as a company, I think it’s important to the industry that we take a measured look at how we can bring sports back with fans — because it just doesn’t work without them.”