Stand up and step away from your couches, sports fans. Come March 22, you will be allowed to enter TD Garden, Fenway Park, and Gillette Stadium to express your opinions in person for the first time in a year.
As long as COVID-19 cases continue to fall and vaccinations continue to rise statewide, venues can open at 12 percent of capacity, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced Thursday.
First to open its doors will be TD Garden, where the Bruins will host the Islanders March 23, followed by Celtics-Pelicans six days later.
The Red Sox open at Fenway Park April 1, with the Revolution starting their season at Gillette Stadium in mid-April, followed by the Patriots in September.
While there will be nothing normal about seeing nearly nine out of every 10 seats empty and everyone but the players wearing masks, the return of the roar of a beer-and-hot-dog-buying crowd, no matter how loud or soft, will be welcome not just for fans, but for teams missing out on game-day revenue.
“We are beyond excited to welcome back the best fans in hockey to TD Garden as their energy and enthusiasm have been greatly missed,” said Bruins president Cam Neely in a press release.
Since shuttering last March, TD Garden has revamped its ventilation and air filtration system, along with many other changes in accordance with local, state, NBA, and NHL health and safety recommendations, and has introduced a “Play It Safe” program meant to ensure fan safety.
“Using these new Play It Safe protocols, following updated guidelines from the CDC, and implementing the GBAC Star arena cleaning standards, we take the reopening of TD Garden very seriously and are committed to the health and safety of our fans while providing a great guest experience,” said Amy Latimer, president and CEO of TD Garden.
Ticketing information for Bruins and Celtics games will be announced in the coming days.
“We have great confidence that everyone’s diligence will provide a safe, welcoming, and enjoyable experience,” said Rich Gotham, president of the Celtics.
The Red Sox will announce ticketing information as well as new safety protocols in the coming weeks.
In a statement, Gillette Stadium officials said they were “thrilled” by the news: “This step represents the progress vaccinations are providing to minimize the risk of infection through herd immunity. It is an important step toward a return to normalcy for fans of the New England Revolution and New England Patriots and provides a sense of optimism for a much brighter future ahead.”
In her remarks at an announcement of the state’s accelerated reopening plan, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito called the news “a definite step forward” and said that “Opening Day is in our near future.”
Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium are serving as mass vaccination sites. The plans are for each venue to keep the program up and running while games are being played, with Gillette officials hoping to expand their operation.
Exactly how vaccination and spectating can coexist on game days remains to be seen.
“They’re important players in this vaccine effort,” said Baker. “We’re going to try to figure that one out.”
Baker’s announcement also included guidance on reopening theaters, concert venues, and musical performances in restaurants, with restrictions on many businesses lifted beginning Monday when the state moves to Phase 3, Step 2.
The stadium and reopening developments will mark Step 1 of Phase 4.
While the reopening comes too late to save some businesses dependent on foot traffic — such as The Fours near TD Garden — those that have managed to stay open expressed relief at the news.
Jeff Wiedmayer, manager of Bleacher Bar on Lansdowne Street underneath the center-field bleachers of Fenway Park, said, “It’s a huge deal, the first step in the right direction.”
The dropoff in business last summer, when the Red Sox played an abbreviated 30-game home slate, all without fans, was “drastic, a complete change from normal times,” said Wiedmayer.
Even with Fenway Park at 12 percent capacity, which means around 4,500 fans per game, Wiedmayer expects a significant improvement.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to be somewhat normal,” said Wiedmayer. “It’s obviously a minimal percent of what a normal baseball season would be like, but I think people are willing to start going out now, and having any type of fans in the stadium is a big win for us at Bleacher Bar.”
Other states have been allowing fans back since as early as last fall. The state of Texas and Major League Baseball allowed fans into the Rangers’ new ballpark last October in the late rounds of the playoffs, including the World Series.
Fifteen NBA teams in a dozen states are allowing fans at a limited capacity. Five NHL teams allow fans.
After permitting more than 6,700 fans to attend a Buffalo Bills playoff game in January, the state of New York this week announced limited capacity of up to 10 percent at venues with a capacity of at least 10,000.
Three hundred fans recently attended a Nets game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with around 2,000 at Tuesday’s Knicks-Warriors game at Madison Square Garden.
After the game, Golden State star Stephen Curry told reporters: “There were some fans heckling, which was awesome.”