- The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the gates at Nationals Park opened. And for the first time in over a year, fans — remember those? — walked into a professional sports stadium in D.C. to watch a game.

There were only 5,000 allowed to attend. But when Washington raised its 2019 World Series banner again, the muted roar that rang around the park still felt natural.

Around the country, that scene is becoming more familiar again. After a sports shutdown preceded a fan lockout due to the coronavirus pandemic, supporters are returning to arenas in varied numbers, from the few in D.C. to the masses in Texas at Globe Life Field, which welcomed over 38,000 fans for the Rangers’ opening day Monday.

But in Washington, the return of fans won’t come in one fell swoop. The Nationals and D.C. United are allowed limited capacities in their outdoor venues, but the Capitals and Wizards appear to be on pace to finish their seasons without any fans in attendance. That leaves Ted Leonsis — the owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Wizards and Capitals — stewing.

“All of us @MSE are disappointed with the city’s failure to grant our waiver allowing fans to attend @Capitals & @WashWizards games this season,” Leonsis wrote on Twitter. “Our staff have worked tirelessly putting in place numerous infrastructure upgrades & health and safety protocols to protect fans & staff.”

The city approved plans last month for the Nationals and D.C. United, but Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday that a proposal for 10% capacity at Capital One Arena for Wizards and Capitals games is still pending. She didn’t offer an exact timetable for approval.

In a statement provided to The Washington Post, Monumental Sports and Entertainment spokesperson Monica Dixon said “it appears we will complete the 20-21 season with no fans in attendance.”

Apart from the Canadian franchises, the Capitals are one of just two American NHL teams that are playing in arenas with no fans at all, with the Chicago Blackhawks the other. There are eight NBA franchises that aren’t hosting fans yet, either, including the Wizards.

Restrictions are loosening around the country, though. In Philadelphia, the Phillies received permission to up their stadium capacity from 20% to 25%, according to the Inquirer. Wells Fargo Arena, which hosts Flyers and Sixers games, will up its capacity limit five percentage points to 20%.

The New York Mets and Yankees host 20% capacity, while the indoor limits for the city’s NHL and NBA franchises are much more restricted. Still, there are fans inside those arenas.

And elsewhere in the country, the restrictions are even lighter. The Rockies opened at 42.6% capacity, and the Diamondbacks are welcoming 20,000 fans.

The scene at Globe Life Field for Monday’s Rangers game — fans arm to arm — is an outlier. After opening day, the team said it would operate at a slightly reduced capacity, with certain sections available for “distanced seating” in April and May.

The 5,000 fans at Nationals Park on opening day Tuesday represented about 12% of the stadium’s capacity. In a release, the Nationals said “discussions have already begun with officials from the District about increasing capacity by May 1.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of having fans back at the ballpark. “For me, this is only the start. We’re getting 5,000 fans, and hopefully we’ll continue to get more fans as the summer goes on. But I’m super excited to see the fans out there and having them cheer for us. It’s good for us, it’s good for baseball and it’s good for the city,”

Meanwhile, fans are still waiting to return to Capital One Arena for Capitals and Wizards games. That wait might last until next season, without a clear path forward provided by Bowser and the city.

“Despite these efforts, Washington, DC is on track to be one of the last American cities to host fans at indoor sporting events,” Leonsis tweeted. “Frustratingly, it remains unclear which metrics we must meet to obtain a waiver allowing a reasonable number of fans into @CapitalOneArena.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.