Just as Boston heads into what could be a dark winter, TD Garden is springing back to life.
The parquet floor hasn’t changed, and the ice will look the same once it eventually gets made, but everything else about the Celtics’ and Bruins’ home arena has been reimagined and reconfigured in order to open safely for Friday night’s Celtics-Nets exhibition game, 281 days after it was shuttered by the pandemic.
The air will be continuously scrubbed of SARS-CoV-2 particles, the movements of employees will be safety-tracked, one-way footpaths will be clearly marked, and an NBA-approved, multilayered “bubble” will settle over the basketball court to keep the players and everyone on site as isolated as possible from an outside world where COVID-19 cases continue to spike.
No fans. No Lucky the Leprechaun stunts. No Celtics Green Team cheerleaders. Just good old-fashioned artificial crowd noise and a TV friendly playing area are coming back — as safely as possible.
“It feels like we’re turning a corner, that there’s some hope, not just for our teams but I hope for Boston and the state and all of our fans. That starting to see the NBA and eventually the NHL to come back, I think, is good news,” said Amy Latimer, president of TD Garden. “What we’re working toward is when we can have fans, and that will be the next good highlight for everyone.”
The prospect of nearly 20,000 fans returning to a confined indoor venue is virtually unimaginable at this moment.
Still, Latimer and TD Garden’s Delaware North owners have been plotting how best to reopen since June, after what they initially thought would be a brief pause in mid-March lingered. At full, partial or no capacity, an open arena required a deep and scientific dive into all operations, not the least of which is the act of breathing.
In contact with the Red Sox and Patriots throughout the summer as those teams planned for and eventually hosted no-fan games, TD Garden faced an added degree of difficulty since the virus particles that cause COVID-19 stay airborne longer indoors — not an issue at Fenway and Gillette Stadium.
Enter “bipolar ionization” technology and a flurry of upgrades to humidity levels, as well as the efficacy and change-frequency of air filters.
Via a Connecticut company named AtmosAir, the Garden installed mechanisms in its HVAC system that circulate energized ions. Viruses and other undesirable particles waiting to be inhaled instead attach themselves to the ions, and the enlarged molecules become heavy enough to fall harmlessly to the ground.
A cohort of electricians, contractors, security, media, and bull gang members will be going in and out of the Garden regularly. That’s hardly a bubble, so employees will be issued a Bluetooth clip-on device made by TraceSafe while they’re on the clock. Designed to “beep” if workers are too close to each other for too long, it also works as a contact tracer in case the employee tests positive or is exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Rather than rely on a worker’s memory or videotape, a map of their movements will reveal who else might have been exposed.
“God forbid someone had a positive case at TD Garden — is it better for them to be able to quickly identify who they were in contact with, or do they take the step where it’s, ‘Hey, we have to shut down the venue till further notice,’ ” said Wayne Lord, TraceSafe CEO.
For contact tracing purposes, once fans are allowed to return, the plan is for them and others to be issued disposable wristbands — perhaps with advertising printed on them — with the same Bluetooth technology.
Working in conjunction with not only the Celtics and the NBA, the Bruins and the NHL, but also the state’s Large Venue Security Task Force, the City of Boston, the CDC, and other health officials, the Garden has been upgrading its sanitation and disinfection procedures, and preparing for as much touchless technology and appliances as possible in restrooms and with food and beverage purchases.
The NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando from July through October was an unqualified success, with not a single positive case of COVID-19 reported from bubble members, who stayed on the grounds the entire time.
A bubble for the 2020-21 season became a copycat procedure.
“We are trying to simulate Orlando,” said Rich Gotham, president of the Celtics. “You can’t keep out the outside world the way we could down there, but we try to create a bubble at our practice facility, create a bubble in the Garden, when we go on the road we’re creating a bubble.
“At the heart of it, not surprisingly, it’s what the CDC and the state and mayor would tell you, which is regular testing, it’s face-mask wearing, and it’s social distancing, and we’re applying all that within the bubble to really everything.”
To mimic a bubble, the Celtics are breaking down the building into zones, Gotham said.
Red Zone 1 members — players, coaches, and team employees — are tested daily. Red Zone 2 members — those close to the action, but without access to back-of-the-house areas such as locker rooms and dining areas — get tested twice within 72 hours of every game. There will be Yellow Zone members, such as the media, who don’t have to be close to the playing area.
Locker rooms will have ultraviolet lighting to help neutralize SARS-CoV-2 particles. Personal areas and shower stalls will be spaced out. Players can’t take Uber or Lyft to the Garden’s parking garage; they have to drive themselves, solo. Once they get out of their cars and walk in the door, masked, their route to the locker room has been designed so nobody else can cross their path.
The Celtics have also been adding restart-related job titles for existing staff. Examples include facility hygiene manager, protocol compliance officer, contact tracing officer, and facemask enforcement officer.
Visiting teams will enter a similar cocoon as soon as they get off the bus.
“For the players, it shouldn’t be too, too different. Certainly they’re used to it from Orlando,” said Gotham. “It’s a heavy lift, but a necessary lift.”
What fans will see on TV is also not an exact replica of Orlando, which featured a wall of videos featuring fans and messaging. The same three-sided court view will show spaced seating for the benches and scorer’s table. There will be more LED and digital areas than viewers are used to, with the center-hung video board fully operational. Celtics PA announcer Eddie Palladino will be there, and players will be introduced pregame with the usual razzle-dazzle and booming music.
“There’s no substitute for fans, there just isn’t,” said Gotham. “But we’re trying to re-create a home-court feeling for our players the best we can.”
For that day when fans do return, Gotham and Latimer are fully aware that a restart and reopening will be judged a success only if it’s safe.
That’s “priority 1A,” said Gotham. “Our business is built on the trust of the fans.”
Latimer trusts that the fans are well aware of the stakes involved.
“We know there are people that would come back regardless. We know we have some Boston fans that have shown that badge of honor and have come in blizzards — this is a different time,” said Latimer. “It’s a partnership, and we need them to agree on this promise before they come into the building that they’re not sick, they don’t have symptoms, they haven’t been around someone that’s been infected, that they are going to follow the protocols and wear their mask and socially distance.
“I would say the gravity of this is tremendous. But I feel like we’ve done our work on the best protocols with the best partners and have a really strong plan. And now we implement.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.