Nothing says a pandemic is easing in New England quite like the “snip-snip” chorus of more than 25,000 zip ties being cut off Fenway Park’s seats.
In anticipation of the first full house at a Boston sports venue since mid-March 2020, a Fenway Park crew of 30-40 wielding snippers will begin roaming the aisles Friday to allow all 37,000-plus seat bottoms to swing freely again and permit the Red Sox to regain a full-throated home-field advantage for their 4:10 p.m. Saturday game against the Marlins.
As foreign as the experience of being in close proximity with tens of thousands of people at Fenway Park, TD Garden, and Gillette Stadium is sure to be after more than a year of quarantine and isolation, those prepping for the large-scale return of fans are doing their best to make it as natural as possible.
“We were just talking about resetting some of the furniture in one of the areas at the ballpark and how it feels really full,” said Pete Nesbit, Fenway Park’s senior vice president of ballpark operations, “so to have 25,000, 30,000, 35,000 people in the ballpark over the next few weeks, it’s going to be great — we can’t wait to have it here — but I think there is some level of anxiety with crowds being back in the building.”
The Red Sox expect 25,000-30,000 fans to turn up Saturday, though a sketchy forecast calling for rain adds some uncertainty.
Along with the emotional edge for the home teams and the monetary boost for employees and team ownership that a full house brings comes the never-disappearing specter of racism from Boston fans, an issue ex-Celtic Kyrie Irving raised before his return this week with the Brooklyn Nets. How that plays out when the Celtics face the Nets at the Garden Friday before 25 percent capacity and then close to 100 percent Sunday night remains to be seen.
In the meantime, TD Garden, Gillette Stadium, and Fenway Park are preparing to welcome back every possible fan for the first time in more than 14 months.
Hearing cheers at top volume will be appreciated by the players, said Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo.
“I think it’s going to help just having that home-field advantage,” said Verdugo. “It’s one of those things, just having a sold-out crowd.
“They’ve already been great now — the fans we’ve been able to have have been loud, making a lot of noise —it’s just something different about having a full sold-out crowd. It’s going to be fun again and it will kind of help us just have that extra adrenaline right off the bat.”
Seems like old times
Besides the removal of zip ties — a time-consuming process that needs to start before Friday night’s 25-percent capacity game so that crews won’t have to work overnight — Fenway Park is undergoing a transformation that should make it look almost identical to what the last full-capacity crowd saw on Sept. 29, 2019.
Plexiglass at the concession stands is being removed (some of it will be saved, just in case, but most will be disposed of because there’s not enough storage space at the ballpark). Signage about outdated CDC safety guidelines is coming down, and portable concession stands and those along Jersey Street are being outfitted and inspected.
More cleaning crews will be needed to dispose of more trash after games, and a full crew of ushers and security guards will be brought back, with the ballpark’s concessionaire, Aramark, handling the return of food and beverage workers.
“Overall, everyone’s very happy to get back to work,” said 67-year-old Robert “Dutch” Leonard of Boston, who’s returning for his 11th season as a Fenway Park bartender. “They like that job there, they like seeing season ticket-holders back and the bonds returned that were built over many years.
“Even during COVID, I had some regulars that would call back and check up every two months to see how we’re doing and making sure everything was well.
“Let’s hope there’s no bumps in the road, and if there are, we can get through them quickly. And the Sox are having a good season, so that’s another big plus.”
Red Sox ticketing will remain mobile-only, but the ballpark for now will still accept cash. The squad of sanitation “robots” will continue their tasks, air-purification units will remain in use, with hand-sanitizing stations and wipes remaining available.
Vaccination status will not be checked. Masks are recommended but not required for fans and some workers; Aramark workers will have to wear masks.
The Red Sox said they “do not anticipate any challenges finding enough Red Sox personnel to work the remaining games once we return to 100 percent capacity,” said Zineb Curran, vice president of corporate communications, in an email. “We are fortunate as an organization that we have long-tenured members of our game day staff that are as excited as our fans are to return to Fenway Park.”
Different at Gillette
Because of NBA and NHL guidelines, patrons and workers at TD Garden will still have to wear masks. The Garden will be at nearly full capacity, with tarps separating the seating bowl from both the rink and court for Bruins and Celtics playoff games..
A full cohort of ushers, security, concession, and Bull Gang workers will be in place by Sunday, said Bruins president Cam Neely.
“I have not heard that we are going to have issues in that regard, which is fortunate,” said Neely.
Attendance at Revolution and Cannons games this summer will not present a challenge to Gillette Stadium’s 65,000-plus capacity, but beginning with the Patriots’ exhibition opener Aug. 12 and over the nine regular-season home games through next January, every seat at Gillette will be filled.
The football team has the luxury of time to learn from the Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics.
“We’re in a different position than other venues like TD Garden and Fenway Park in that we’re not faced with the challenge of going from 25 percent one day to 100 percent the next, so we have the benefit, a little bit, of drafting off their wake,” said Jim Nolan, chief operating officer of the Kraft Group, which owns the stadium, the Patriots, and the Revolution.
“For the Premier Lacrosse League events [in June], we’re going to maintain distancing in seats just for the comfort of people. Since we’re a 65,000-plus-seat building, we can maintain distance for the comfort of the fans for an event like that.”
Revolution and Cannons fans can request to be seated at least 6 feet from other fans, and stadium personnel will accommodate their wishes.
Gillette went 100 percent cashless during the pandemic, and it’s not going back. For those patrons who forget their plastic, there will be cash-to-credit machines that convert paper currency into a universal VISA card.
Hand-sanitizer stations will remain in place, as well as new cleaning standards for high-touch points and bathrooms during games. Bathroom fixtures are all touchless.
“We’ve been in constant communication throughout the pandemic with both the folks at Fenway Park and the folks at TD Garden to really establish best practices across the venues so that not only is there consistency but there’s a higher level of fan safety and comfort,” Nolan said.
“We have been to Fenway Park and TD Garden already to look at their operations at 12 and at 25 percent, and we will certainly be looking at their operations at 100 percent. You can learn lessons from other people.
“Having both of those in our backyard before us is a great opportunity for us to see how they do it. Every time we go, we pick up something we can bring back here.”
Alex Speier and Kevin Paul Dupont of the Globe staff contributed to this report.