The Cubs and Sox will play this season before real fans instead of plastic cut-outs.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday gave both teams the go-ahead to sell 20% of the seats at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, citing the “remarkable” progress Chicago has made toward containing the coronavirus and vaccinating residents.
“Based upon CDC guidance as recently as today about outdoor sports, we felt very, very comfortable about opening up the Cubs and the White Sox games to fans in the stands,” Lightfoot told an unrelated news conference in Austin.
“We are limited in the city. But we’re hoping that conversations with the governor and his team will yield even more spectators in the stands for both the Cubs and the White Sox. We’ve spent a lot of time with them going through their plans. The plans are very solid. And they’ve had the benefit of seeing how to get this right because of the NFL season, where there were fans in the stands in many sports venues across the country.”
As for fans attending Bulls and Blackhawks games indoors at the United Center, that’s “more complicated for the obvious reasons,” Lightfoot said.
“We are still working with them. And if we believe that we can have fans in the stands at the United Center for either the Bulls or the Blackhawks before the end of the season, we’ll certainly look for those opportunities to make that happen. But we’re not quite there yet.”
No fans attended games in either Chicago ballpark last season, though the Sox did put life-sized photos of fans in some seats.
Guaranteed Rate has a seating capacity of 40,615. The city’s gradual reopening plan will limit the crowd to 8,122 fans, with at least six feet between parties, starting with the home opener on April 8.
Wrigley Field has a capacity crowd of 41,374. There, the 20% rule allows the Cubs to sell 8,274 seats, beginning with the home opener on April 1.
After starting at 20%, both ballparks will “potentially open to more fans as vaccination and recovery efforts continue,” City Hall said.
Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the Cubs plan to “prioritize season ticket holders” to make certain “our most loyal customers who have supported our business have an opportunity to purchase tickets first.”
Only after the roughly 8,000 season ticket holders get first crack, will all other Cubs fans get their chance. Details of the so-called “Wrigley Field pre-sale access program” will be announced Tuesday, Green said.
“You register to buy single-game tickets for parties of one, two, three and a maximum of four. Then, you’ll be randomly selected to purchase tickets,” Green told the Sun-Times. The four-tickets-per-game limit also will apply to season ticket holders, he said.
The Sox, likewise, are giving priority to fans with season tickets, according to the team’s website. Any tickets left after that “will be made available to the general public at a later date,” according to the website.
For now, only the first White Sox homestand — seven games — will go on sale, said Brooks Boyer, White Sox chief revenue and marketing officer.
That made sense to lifelong Sox fan Elmer Mestrovic, 64, who lives in Bridgeport and was outside Guaranteed Rate Field on Monday.
“I think they almost have to. People that are season ticket holders deserve it before people that just walk up,” said Mestrovic, who doesn’t have season tickets himself.
“I wish that there would be more people able to go. If it keeps getting better, hopefully by next year everything can be back to normal.”
Those tickets at Guaranteed Rate Field will be sold in “pods,” the White Sox said. Those pods would be spaced out by at least 6 feet, and ushers will make sure fans maintain that distance from other groups.
Boyer said enforcing the team’s mandatory mask policy in the ballpark will be essential.
“We will be doing what we can, what we need to do to enforce that policy unless someone is actively eating or drinking,” he said. “It will be different. ... It’s baseball. You want to scream. So we’ll see how this all plays itself out, but masks are going to be mandatory in the ballpark.”
Cubs Executive Chairman Tom Ricketts thanked the mayor for her leadership and reiterated the team’s commitment to “safely welcoming fans back to baseball.”
“The return of fans is incredibly meaningful to our players, our city and the game we love,” Ricketts was quoted as saying.
“Nothing can replace the energy and enthusiasm our beloved fans bring to the Friendly Confines each and every game. We’re ready and excited for our much anticipated Wrigley Field reunion.”
Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf noted the national pastime has long played a “historic role” by offering “respite during some of the most difficult times” and providing fans with a “sense of comfort when circumstances seem uncertain.
“We believe this is a moment when baseball can indeed serve our fans and our communities again as we all hope for a gradual return to normal,” Reinsdorf was quoted as saying.
“It’s why we applaud Mayor Lightfoot, the leadership role she and Governor Pritzker have played for our city and state and the decision today — guided by an unwavering commitment to public health and safety — to allow fans to return to Guaranteed Rate for Opening Day.”
Folks, we've significantly slowed the spread of COVID, getting our positivity rate down to 2.8%. And now, we can begin to safely welcome fans back to our baseball stands on opening day. Although we’re reopening, masking is still of utmost importance. ⚾ pic.twitter.com/pkGnMDkSUc— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) March 8, 2021
To mitigate risk, the Cubs and Sox are following MLB protocols that include: ballpark entry and amenity zones; limited-contact entry; cashless concessions and retail; additional restrooms per guest; reduced queueing times; and reconfigured indoor spaces.
Just as continued progress could bring additional capacity to both ballparks, a surge in COVID-19 cases also could trigger a rollback, the city warned.
That’s why it’s pivotal that both stadiums and the restaurants and bars around them follow strict safety protocols. Same goes for the Wrigley rooftops, which also will be limited to 20% capacity.
“With our COVID-19 numbers declining and our vaccination efforts successful and ongoing, this is truly a milestone for the city’s reopening,” Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady was quoted as saying.
“As our favorite places in the city reopening, it is important we remain vigilant and continue to follow the public health guidance so we can enjoy everything Chicago has to offer.”
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) hopes 20% capacity is “just the beginning.” His ward includes Wrigley.
“We’re at 50% with restaurants. I think we could [safely] go up to 33%. But, the decision is in the governor’s office. Hopefully, we can urge the governor [to allow that before] opening day,” Tunney told the Sun-Times.
“We know how to mask and distance properly. We should be able to do something better by opening day. Even at 25%, we could get 10,000 fans in there” to Wrigley.
“I’m excited for the park reopening as long as they do it safely,” said Adrienne Bohl, who lives in the neighborhood and was jogging by Wrigley on Monday.
“A lot of people are going to be vaccinated as the season goes on, so it’s going to get safer and safer. As long as they do it responsibly, I’m all for it,” added Bohl, 35. “The city needs a little bit of fun this summer.”
Freddy Fagenholz, general manager of Murphy’s Bleachers, 3655 N. Sheffield Ave., hopes 20% capacity is only a start. By summer, he’s wants the Cubs playing before sell-out crowds once again.
“I’ve been here for 14 years. I’ve been in the area for 25 years. It’s like a whole different neighborhood right now,” Fagenholz said.
“After a game, you’re used to seeing like 20,000 people on the street. Last year after a game, you saw no one. People were leaving from the rooftops. But that was about all. … I don’t like to give numbers, but our business was down pretty significantly.”
Allowing 20% capacity will “help a little bit,” Fagenholz said.
“People who come here to watch the game will be here for two-and-a-half hours watching the game. ... If we get another 50, 60 people after the game, that would be great,” he said.
“At least with this long tunnel, there’s a little bit of light we can see. And I think things will get a lot better. … Maybe by July or August, we’ll be at 100% capacity. … Whatever happens by then, this is a good start. The city has suffered. Wrigleyville has suffered.”
The return of fans also is great news for Josh Sklar, one of the owners of Sports World Chicago, 3555 N. Clark St., right across from Wrigley.
“We’re ecstatic over here. We haven’t seen fans since early March last year,” Sklar said Monday.
“Our business thrives on fans. We’re happy that people can shop and have fun again.”
Last summer, the Cubs devised strict protocols they believed would allow up to 7,000 fans to safely attend games at Wrigley. It called for fans in groups of two, four and six with designated gates and staggered entry and exit windows.
At the time, Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, told the Sun-Times the Cubs were eager to test their limited capacity plan to “see how the ballpark operates with those rules,” he said.
Kenney said then the team stood to lose ”north of $125 million” over the course of the 60-game season that would cost all of Major League Baseball $4.5 billion.
There were no fans in the stands, no concerts, no Cubs convention. The outdoor plaza known as Gallagher Way was empty.
The Hotel Zachary and the Wrigleyville restaurants and 11 rooftops owned by the billionaire Ricketts family that owns the Cubs were operating at 25% capacity, then shut down entirely.
“We’ve been reduced to basically our media revenues, our television and radio revenues, as well as our share of the league’s profits that are shared equally among all 30 clubs,” Kenney said then.
“The music business has been really good to us. We had a really busy calendar with live music at Wrigley. All of that, as well, will not be enjoyed.”
Three months later, Lightfoot said the Bears had presented the city with a plan detailed enough to make her comfortable that fans could safely return to the stands at Soldier Field. But the mayor said she would allow it only when Chicago’s “health metrics” started “trending in a very different direction.”
Contributing: Grace Asiegbu, Mitch Dudek, Daryl Van Schouwen