- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2021

When the Capitals earned a power play early in Sunday’s win against the Flyers, a “ref, you suck” chant rang around Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. And Washington defenseman John Carlson loved the sound.

“I’m tired of the [fake] crowd noise,” Carlson said. “I like to hear some booing and some cheering — normal things that go on in an NHL game, even though it’s not a packed house like it shouldn’t be. But it means a lot to the players, I think. It feels a lot more natural for us.”

Almost a year after the first coronavirus shutdowns changed everyday life and kept fans away from sporting events, supporters — albeit in limited numbers — are making their way back into arenas.

In Philadelphia, about 3,000 Flyers fans watched their team’s 3-1 loss to the Capitals, attending for the first time this year. In College Park, limited family members watched Maryland’s regular-season men’s basketball finale against Penn State at Xfinity Center. Around MLB, opening day should feature condensed crowds at most stadiums next month.

But in Washington, the wait goes on.

Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser co-signed a letter sent to the Nationals approving them to play at Nationals Park this season. But the mayor and Dr. Christopher Rodriguez of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said fans wouldn’t be allowed at the stadium until further notice.

At a press conference Thursday, Bowser asked Washington fans for patience. Bowser said the city will continue to work with the Nationals “and give the best advice and guidance that we can.” And on Monday, the mayor said some virus-related restrictions for businesses — and potentially professional sporting events — could be eased by mid-March.

No teams that play within the District limits have been allowed to have fans attend since the pandemic spread a year ago. But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday he hopes that can change before opening day, when Washington faces the New York Mets on April 1.

“I’m an optimistic person,” Rizzo said. “I think we’re optimistic. We’re working hard hand-in-hand with them to do the right thing and keep not only the citizens of the DMV safe but to do it the right way. When we team up, we’ll come together and get something that works for everybody.”

On Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot approved a plan to allow 20% capacity for White Sox and Cubs games, the latest city to open their doors to fans part way. The Milwaukee Brewers can host 25% of their normal capacity while the Detroit Tigers can have just 1,000 in attendance — less than 3% Comerica Park’s capacity.

For California-based teams, Gov. Gavin Newsom is limiting teams that play within purple-tier counties to 100 fans, impacting the San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers. The Blue Jays will open the season playing in Florida due to Canada’s coronavirus travel restrictions, with 15% capacity allowed.

But for the Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners, plans haven’t yet been laid out.

In the District, much of that revolves around the city’s Department of Health and a cautious approach to new coronavirus strains even as vaccinations rise.

“It’s still very real,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of D.C.’s Department of Health, said last week. “So this notion that mass gatherings, whether indoor or outdoor, are all of a sudden appropriate, we need to make sure we’re distinguishing between what happens in a small indoor space with a small number of people, such as the education environment versus a mass gathering whether it be indoor or outdoor. That still carries a significant risk for the individual and for the public health and health system.”

To some Nationals players, such as Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer, having a limited number of fans back at the stadium is a no-brainer. Zimmerman said one small reason he opted out of the 2020 campaign was because there would be no fans, which he felt would take some of the fun out of playing baseball.

Manager Dave Martinez also said he’s hoping the city revisits the issue in a few weeks.

But Wizards guard Bradley Beal said there shouldn’t be a rush to bring fans back to the arena. He misses the energy he gets in front of a packed crowd, yet his first concern is safety. So the three-time All-Star backs Bowser’s patient approach to fans returning — even as much of the rest of the country welcomes some fans back to sporting events.

“Especially in D.C., you have to understand that we’re at the focal front of everything,” Beal said Sunday. “We are the nation’s capital, so everything we do is magnified, and everything we do is going to be copied and kind of go from there. So I think what the mayor’s doing is exemplary. Like, she has to do that. I’m with her. I don’t think we should have fans until we’re good, honestly.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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