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Prepping for fans when baseball returns

Ballpark Digest squareThe huge national debate regarding baseball is when and how some semblance of play returns. But many in the baseball industry are already looking to the next challenge: when fans are allowed back, how will games be run?

Even under the best of circumstances, with fans allowed into venues in the late summer or early fall, health experts and elected officials will likely recommend social distancing for months to come. That will likely mean ballpark changes on all levels of baseball this year and possibly next year. And the planning for these changes is already underway, both on short-term and long-term bases.

“Our Americas practice has plunged into identifying what the future of facility design looks like on all levels across every one of our markets,” said Bruce Miller, managing director for Populous Americas. “With the understanding that there is not one right solution, we are drawing from our extensive experience in sports and live event design and are working with dozens of clients to identify and implement temporary and long-term solutions that best fit their individual needs.”

The most obvious and least expensive solution is to remove seating to physically enforce social-distancing rules, a move already being considered and implemented by MLB, MiLB and summer-collegiate operators. It’s a temporary move that can be reversed once we reach a point where a) social distancing guidelines are loosened to where we’re not wearing face masks and standing six feet away from others and b) fans are confident enough to turn out in droves to the ballpark. (The latter is a whole separate issue, of course.) The removal of seats could see seats separated by tables and staggered in every other row, the return of old-fashioned box seating with sections separated by rails, or barriers installed between four tops in existing group areas.

But this won’t be an option for every operator. Windy City ThunderBolts (independent; Frontier League) general manager Mike VerSchave told the Chicago Tribune social distancing won’t work very well for his team’s home games, especially in a situation where there is likely to be the loss of part of a season:

VerSchave said Ozinga Field would have to be allowed to be near full capacity to make it worth playing games.

“If you can’t do it pretty close to normal, it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “If we have to worry about selling every fifth seat or selling every other row, it’d be hard to make it work financially and it seems like it’d be hard to enforce.

“If the world is still like that later this summer, then it would probably be best not to have a season for safety reasons.”

In a similar situation is the Macon Bacon (summer collegiate; Coastal Plain League), successful in their efforts to bring baseball back to venerable Luther Williams Field. While the Bacon have been a huge draw at the old ballpark, which opened in 1929, the team has announced a delay of the season opener to July 2 and a reconfiguration of ballpark seating due to social distancing to 1,300, down from the normal 3,300 capacity. The team will also implement a series of safety measures, including numerous extra steps for safe food service, contactless interaction for concessions and merchandise transactions, additional signage encouraging social distancing, hand sanitizers throughout the ballpark and extensive, regular cleaning of the bathrooms and common areas.

What the Bacon is doing is already planned by many operators, but you won’t see much work until you see a confirmation about when fans will return to ballparks. And that is still certainly up in the air. But the coronavirus pandemic is sure to have an impact on facility design in coming years—the specifics remain to be seen.

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