Take me out to the ballgame, just not if I have to wear a mask. Major League Baseball is finally allowing a limited number of fans back into ballparks this year, but their nonsensical COVID-19 restrictions sap almost all the joy out of the experience.
I recently attended my first game in almost two years at Nationals Park in Washington DC. (Before angry readers tell me I should be boycotting the MLB because of their decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s new election security laws, I’ll have you know that I did not purchase the tickets). It was far from a celebration of the (far too slow) reopening of America. Instead, the experience was a soul-crushing reminder that too many parts of the country are still relying on the inane anti-science policies that have prolonged the pandemic and destroyed trust in public health.
Baseball is a game that is almost always played outdoors. Nationals Park is a huge open-air stadium that usually holds over 40,000 people. Current regulations limit the park to 10,000 spectators to allow for social distancing, which is further enforced with zip ties keeping unoccupied seats closed so that rogue fans can’t seat-hop. Even though CDC guidelines state that wearing masks outdoors is only really necessary when ‘less than six feet apart from people’, Nats Park employees strictly enforce mask wearing at all times.
The park is so hawkish on masks that my companion was told at the entrance that his bandana was not an ‘acceptable’ face covering. The park’s website says that neck gaiters are also off limits. Don’t worry though — employees have boxes and boxes of so-called medical-grade masks available for those who don’t comply with these arbitrary rules. When you finally make it to your seat, you will be tickled to see that the umpires are all wearing the forbidden neck gaiters. Most players don’t wear masks at all. Last I checked, we’re all breathing the same air.
Don’t expect the peanuts and Cracker Jack to cheer you up. The new food ordering system at Nats Park might be the worst idea since ballparks decided to prohibit alcohol sales after the seventh inning. Fans are supposed to complete concession orders via their phones by scanning QR codes on signs placed about 10 feet away from food and alcohol stands. The idea is to prevent people from waiting in line together and interacting with vendors. Instead, fans just crowd around the QR signs and stand shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for their mobile orders to be completed. Then, the vendor still has to hand them their food and drink. The procedure has effectively changed nothing. The Baltimore Orioles — my home team — have made a similar mistake in the name of ‘health’ and ‘safety’. For years, Camden Yards has allowed fans to bring in their food and beverages. No longer. The Orioles organization says the policy was changed to reduce ‘touch points’ due to COVID. As if you aren’t creating more ‘touch points’ by requiring fans to purchase concessions from a vendor rather than taking their own food directly to their seat. Makes sense!
The most depressing yet unintentionally hilarious part of my trip to the ballpark was when the scoreboard urged the fans to ‘MAKE SOME NOISE!’. The animation included a noise meter and egged the crowd on: ‘get loud!’, ‘louder!’, it insisted. I looked around at the tens of thousands of empty chairs and laughed to myself. Sorry, Nats, but we’re doing the best we can!
Baseball is supposed to be a leisurely sport to spectate. You drink a few beers and have a few hours to forget about the rest of the world. With all of the restrictions on our experience, though, it felt more like work. This is not good news for a sport with an already declining viewership.
It’s also bad news for getting over the COVID pandemic. Baseball hardly boasts the most in-shape players in professional sports, but when obesity is one of the main drivers of coronavirus deaths, we should be encouraging any and all physical activity. But our public health officials have repeatedly canceled or limited sport seasons, closed gyms and parks and otherwise made it more difficult than ever to workout. Just over the northern border, Ontario has shut down golf courses, some of the most socially-distant areas in all of sports!
If we are truly encouraging people to be healthy, we ought to normalize being outside and playing sports. The COVID restrictions at places like Nats Park and Camden Yards, however, punish fans and players for doing exactly that. It’s time for a changeup.