Last week, for the first time in more than a year, fans in Los Angeles were allowed to watch professional sports in person. Some 15,000 Dodgers faithful showed up for the team’s April 9 home opener, and after the World Series champs received their diamond-encrusted rings, a socially distanced crowd enjoyed a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.
The opportunity, as well as the challenges, expand this week, with indoor sports back on the docket. Tonight, fans will file into Staples Center for the first time since last March as the Lakers take on the Boston Celtics. On Sunday it’s the Clippers’ turn, and on April 20 spectators for the first time will watch the Kings glide across the ice.
In Los Angeles County, everything from schools to movies theaters have already been allowed to reopen as coronavirus case rates fell and other health markers were hit. What makes the reopening of the downtown arena unique is that people entering the building are expected to engage in the type of cheering and screaming that propels droplets into the air—the ultimate super-spreader atmosphere. And while other local entertainment venues will come online—from the Inglewood Forum to gritty rock clubs—Staples has a size and schedule that puts it in a league of its own: in non-pandemic times the 19,000-capacity building hosts more than 200 games, concerts, and other events annually.
That bar won’t be hit yet. According to media reports, approximately 2,000 fans will enter Staples tonight. As the months pass, attendance could grow—Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a goal to lift all restrictions by June 15, potentially allowing a full house if any team makes a deep post-season run.
Playoff performance is a big “if.” What is assured is that everything will be different than it was pre-COVID, and even if the battery of health and safety protocols do not dampen enthusiasm, they will change how people interact. A three-minute video on the Staples Center website details the new protocols and standards.
The sports fan’s new world order starts the same way everything else does these days: with social distancing. Patrons will be spread throughout the arena so as to ensure six feet of distance and seats will be sold in pods for “households.” Signage directs visitors to stay apart.
Another common component will be a mask mandate. “Gaiters, bandanas, and coverings with exhalation vents are prohibited,” the website warns, adding that “guests unable to wear proper face coverings will not be admitted into the venue.”
Speaking of being admitted, just getting in the building requires clearing another hurdle: a health verification. All patrons are required to show a photo ID and either proof of full vaccination (meaning two weeks since the last inoculation) or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event. Anyone sitting within 30 feet of the floor needs proof of both.
The touchless trend is in full effect. Parking passes are digital and guests are required to have tickets on a mobile device. Additionally, the 22-year-old arena is now a place where your money is no good. “We no longer accept cash,” declares the safety page; fans can use a credit card or pay with a phone.
There will be a bevy of food and drink options, but again, the regimen kicks against personal interaction. Visitors will use QR codes to order on their device, and will get a text when items are ready.
One downer may be the inability to sip a beer or gobble popcorn while watching the action. Instead, there are designated eating spots, including new outdoor spaces. Don’t expect to bend the rules, as the safety page instructs, “No food and beverage will be permitted inside the seating area of the arena.”
Other protocols echo what has been occurring elsewhere for months. Toilets flush automatically, faucets turn on without contact, and cleaning staff will regularly douse high-touch areas with disinfectant. New air filters have been installed.
One new protocol has sparked grumbling even before the first game: no bags are allowed inside, including purses and backpacks. While this is intended to prevent security staff from touching visitors’ possessions, patrons have complained online that it is insensitive to certain groups, including women. “Can’t wait to stroll into a concert at Staples center with a tampon tucked behind my ear,” said one woman on Twitter.
Others charge that this restriction poses hurdles for diabetics who need glucose meters and insulin pumps. The Staples safety page doesn’t address those concerns directly, other than to point to outdoor lockers that patrons can rent.
In the coming months, only Lakers, Clippers, and Kings games are on the Staples schedule; the WNBA’s Sparks have been relegated to playing games at the Convention Center across the street for the start of the season. They will return to their traditional home on August 15—four nights after a Justin Bieber concert.
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