SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Brian Delaney checked the ticket, found his seats and sat in the sunshine for a moment. It was not a typical late February day in Arizona – a little cool, a little airy – but Delaney did not complain a little.
“Have you ever been through a winter in Colorado?” said the Colorado Rockies flag with a grin.
The good humor and smiles were easy to find when baseball fans poured in on Sunday afternoon’s spring training opener between the Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. A downward trend in COVID-19 cases across most of the country has meant that a limited number of fans are allowed to return to this spring’s fitness facilities throughout Arizona and Florida.
At Salt River Fields on the Talking Stick, the audience was limited to about 2,200 fans, which is 16% of normal capacity. Delaney said he never hesitated to get tickets for himself and Debra Mierzwa once they were sold a few weeks ago.
“Oh yes,” Delaney said. “We were never worried. This is great. “
The happy and half-normal scene on Sunday was far from 353 days ago, when unbelieving fans stood outside Salt River Fields and digested the news that baseball – and most of the rest of the world – was closed due to the corona virus. pandemic.
Almost a year later, things are very different.
“It seemed like forever,” said Brandon Ramsey, who lives in the Phoenix area and went to the Reds Indians game in Goodyear on Sunday. “Last year was cut a bit. Getting out here for the opening day us just wonderful. They did a great job of social distancing. They made sure we were safe. ”
Apart from the World Series and NL Championship Series which were held in October in a neutral park in Arlington, Texas, this marked the first time fans were allowed to play baseball matches since March 12.
The security protocols for sporting events have now become known. Fans in Scottsdale are scattered in small buckets of two, four or six people. Masks are worn except when eating and drinking. People who sat on blankets in the grass outside the outfield wall were given spray-painted squares to stay separate. Cleaning crews are ubiquitous.
But spring baseball seems to have a significant safety advantage over NBA, NHL and college basketball colleagues: It is played outdoors where studies have shown that the virus is less effective at spreading.
“We feel very good about our ability to be host training in the safest way possible,” said Cidus League CEO Bridget Binsbacher.
All 30 teams in Major League Baseball will allow fans at their training facilities this spring in Arizona and Florida, although capacity will be severely limited. The Chicago Cubs receive the most fans (3,630 per game), while the San Francisco Giants want the fewest (1000 per game).
The Yankees and Twins have the largest share of vacancies, with the potential to reach 28% of capacity.
The outlook for spring training has changed drastically in just the last month. Back in January, the Cactus League sent a letter to MLB stating that the spring schedule was delayed due to high COVID-19 numbers in Maricopa County, which is home to all 15 teams in Arizona.
But then things fell in Arizona, and the plan to play games pushed forward. Binsbacher and others became much more optimistic.
For some fans, the progress came too late.
Don Witynski is a 58-year-old Milwaukee Brewers fan from Wisconsin who has been traveling to Arizona for the past four years for about a week during spring training. He said the family of four would watch three or four baseball games, but the trip also includes hiking and other outdoor activities in the Arizona sun.
Not this year. He said most of his friends are living in Wisconsin this year, although a few will take the trip to the desert.
“We are on our way down and staying home,” Witynski said. “I have teenagers, 13-year-old twins. Obviously until this vaccine rolls out, we will unfortunately be at home this year unfortunately. “
These are the kinds of stories that Arizona and Florida have, which span another year of lost revenue. But limited fans are better than no fans. Appetite to watch baseball look strong: The Rockies and Diamondbacks – who share the Salt River Fields facility – both sold out the entire spring lottery allotment about 24 hours after they went public.
Delaney said he and Mierzwa came to Arizona regardless of the baseball situation. They enjoy trail running and Arizona in February is a great time for that sport. Businesses in Arizona are hoping that more Delaneys and Mierz were out there to make 2021 a little less painful.
“It’s all part of moving in the right direction,” Binsbacher said. “I can not stress enough – health and safety were at the forefront of everything we did. But the economic numbers are real. It definitely affects our businesses and the numbers speak for themselves. It’s a huge impact. ”
The COVID-19 hit in central Arizona’s baseball economy was strong: A study by Arizona State University found that the Cactus League season generated an estimated $ 363.6 million impact in 2020 before the mid-March shutdown, which was down to nearly $ 300 million from the estimated $ 644.2 million generated in 2018.
The study added that 2020 would have been “on par” with 2018 had it not been for coronavirus.
As for 2021, there is cautious optimism that the Cactus League season will not be a complete washout for the local economy. But for hotels, restaurants, bars, golf courses and rental companies, there is little doubt that the economy will hit for the second year in a row.
Stephanie Pressler, director of community affairs for Experience Scottsdale, said companies are balancing realism with a bit of optimism now that COVID-19 cases have gone down and all teams allow at least some fans.
“This is normally the busiest time of year for Scottsdale’s tourism industry, mainly due to Cactus League spring training,” Pressler said in an email. “Understandably, our expectations have been subdued this year given the ongoing pandemic, although Experience Scottsdale is excited that the season will continue in a way that will keep teams, fans, staff and residents safe.”
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