ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are planning to open the 2021 season with a limited number of fans attending games at Tropicana Field.
Seating will be limited to around 7,000 per game, with fans sitting in small pods distanced from other groups. Masks will be required under Major League Baseball’s rules.
The plan is evolving, sometimes daily, and subject to change based on the status of coronavirus cases in the Tampa Bay area and the state.
The Rays are hoping conditions are more favorable by April —as vaccines become more available and cases stop spiking — and that they can increase capacity as the season goes on. Conversely, a surge in cases could delay or derail the plan. Permission from MLB and governmental authorities is also required.
“We know that how we start the season and how we we end will be dramatically different,” team president Matt Silverman said Friday. “In all cases, we will keep health as a top priority.”
Many of the details are still being worked out, though team officials are working off a plan they hoped to use to allow fans for 2020 late-season and postseason games. But MLB decided against it and, after the opening round of the playoffs, opted for neutral-site games.
Part of the Trop’s upper deck is likely to be reopened to increase capacity and make use of the available space. Concession service is expected to be altered to accommodate distancing requirements. How close to the field fans will be able to sit, whether plexiglass barriers will be installed and how many seats will be in a pod are among the issues to be decided.
Information on tickets is expected to be available by mid-February. Priority will be given to season ticket holders; the team has been accepting deposits for season ticket plans since the end of last season.
The Rays are scheduled to open their home schedule April 9 against the Yankees. Major-league teams were told this week to plan on reporting to spring training as planned in mid-February and to play a full 162-game schedule.
Under league guidelines, teams do not have to require negative COVID-19 tests, proof of vaccines or temperature checks, and the Rays don’t plan to do so. MLB is requiring masks be worn except when fans are eating or drinking, or if they have a medical condition.
The Rays, like the other 29 teams, played the abbreviated 2020 season without fans, which contributed to a massive financial hit that principal owner Stuart Sternberg recently told the Tampa Bay Times totaled “a number I wouldn’t have imagined to lose in a baseball season.”
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MLB allowed a limited number of fans, about 11,500 per game, under a distanced-pods plan, for the National League Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
The Rays don’t know yet if fans will be allowed to attend spring games, which are scheduled to start Feb. 27 in Port Charlotte, or for workouts, which are slated to begin Feb. 18.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team, also owned by the Rays, hosted limited fans at Al Lang Stadium after resuming play in July.
The Lightning initially announced plans to host a limited number of fans at Amalie Arena for the start of their season this week but backtracked due to a surge in coronavirus cases locally. After opening their season at Amalie with a limited number of fans, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors are also now playing without fans.
The Bucs played with a limited number of fans at Raymond James Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7.