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Dodger Stadium will open to fans Friday for the first time in 18 months. With Los Angeles County now in the orange tier of the state's color-coded reopening plan, a socially distanced crowd of about 15,000 will be allowed in the ballpark for the home opener with the Washington Nationals, the team the Dodgers played the last time people were allowed through the turnstiles.
But just because you can go to the game doesn’t mean you should.
“For sure the initial thought is, ‘Wow, that’s great things are coming back,’” said Dr. Armand Dorian, interim chief executive of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. “But then we immediately look and see how are they doing this. Because we’ve been burned before, right?
“There’s nothing like having a 20,000-person gathering and doing it the wrong way. Because we know where we’ll end up.”
Before you accuse Dorian of being an alarmist whose face mask has cut off the oxygen to his brain, know that when asked if he would go to the game if he had a ticket, the doctor's initial response was a long pause.
“That’s so difficult because I’m a huge Dodger fan,” he finally said. “I probably would go, to be honest. But I would be masked up with a shield. I’m vaccinated so I know I’m safe. This is a symbol of success.”
It’s not time to hang a “mission accomplished” banner just yet, however. Some health experts warn the finish line may still be far away.
Nationwide, COVID-19 infections have risen in each of the last three weeks as more-contagious variants such as B.1.1.7 — the so-called U.K. variant — continue spreading. That’s raised fears a fourth wave of infections may be starting.
After a long, steady decline, infection rates in Los Angeles County have leveled off. Despite that, Los Angeles and Orange counties have entered the orange tier, the next-to-last stop in California’s staged reopening, allowing outdoor sports venues such as Dodger Stadium to fill a third of their seats, with some restrictions.
The Dodgers are requiring that all fans wear a face covering over their nose and mouth and practice social distancing. Visual markers and signage will be in place throughout the stadium to ensure compliance. In addition, hand-sanitizing stations and plexiglass dividers have been added and bathrooms modified to reduce capacity and utilize touchless soap and towel dispensers. Attendance will be limited to under 15,000 — about 3,600 fewer than the one-third capacity allowed in the orange tier — to allow for social distancing, team president Stan Kasten said.
The Dodgers, along with most major league teams, are not demanding fans offer proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, but local guidelines have required the New York Yankees, Mets and the San Francisco Giants to do so.
Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA and director of the school’s Center for Global and Immigrant Health, welcomes the easing but wonders if it has come too fast.
“We have so much good news these days,” she said. “We have three effective and safe vaccines that we are getting into arms quickly. We are on the right trajectory. Hospitalizations are down, case counts are down, and we are coming to a point where we can start the process of reopening slowly.
“That said, we should learn the lessons from last year: When you open up society, you provide more opportunities for the virus to spread. We still have a lot of susceptible people in our community, and there are more-infectious variants spreading across the U.S. and in California. We should still be proceeding cautiously."
Dorian said the staff at his hospital would be watching the coronavirus metrics closely, because when people ignore the safety protocols, their fun and games often become a nightmare for frontline health workers.
"I don’t want to call it PTSD, but there’s definitely sensitivities around that for the heroes that work during this pandemic,” he said. “They want to make sure everybody understands the gravity of this decision. We can’t be aloof and say ‘OK, let’s open up.’
“Let’s at least come up with a real good plan.”
Doug Dunlap, a diehard Dodgers fan from Valencia, said he’d probably watch Friday’s game on television, but that’s more a bow to economics than to COVID-19.
“It gotten too expensive,” said the retired radio traffic reporter who once had a 30-game-a-season habit. “[But] I would have no health concerns for opening day. I’m vaccinated. I’d wear a mask. And I know seats will be distanced.
“Getting the vaccine made us breathe easier.”
Ross Miller, a doctor from Cheviot Hills, said he and his brother Don had made a tradition of attending the home opener at Dodger Stadium, one they’ll continue Friday despite the pandemic.
“There is some degree of trepidation since I have been so COVID-cautious in my personal life for the entire past year,” said Miller, 67, a Dodgers season-ticket holder for more than 40 years. “The biggest issue for me is obviously being around other fans not in my small bubble and whose COVID life is unknown to me outside the stadium.”
Miller and his brother, who is also a doctor, plan to double mask, use copious amounts of hand sanitizer and practice social distancing. Both have been vaccinated.
“As long as I am totally careful, then I feel comfortable attending the game,” he said.
Not everyone is as ready to take themselves out to the ballgame. Not as long as that means taking themselves out with the crowd.
Jim Nelson, a 61-year-old radio host from Agoura Hills, is a diehard fan who has attended games at Dodger Stadium each season for more than five decades. That streak ended last year, and he’s not yet ready to go back despite the safety protocols the team has in place.
“I’ve spent the past year feeling like I'd rather not find out the hard way that I should have been more cautious. And I'm not yet feeling like it's time to change that approach,” said Nelson, who has been doing his nightly radio show from home since last April. “Soon, I hope. But not yet."
Nelson got his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, but even that isn’t a panacea, health experts warn, because people who have completed the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna regimens or received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine can still contract the virus for up to four weeks afterward.
And although the lead medical science has over COVID-19 could evaporate at any time, Dorian believes we are entering the ninth inning of the battle, which means it’s time to bear down, bring in the closer and nail down the win.
“We know how we can reintroduce fans, but how confident [are] we that we can reintroduce fans the right way?” he said. “If you’re unmasked, drinking, sitting next to each other at a ballgame, yelling and high-fiving the guy next to you because of a home run, the potential of spreading the infection is real.
“It’s hard for us to stop and be masked at the games when we get intense. Everybody wants to [re]open. It’s just that we’re so close that it’s a shame for us not to try to finish this out. This is the last hurrah, the next couple of months if we can get past this without that variant showing up.”
For some, that might mean waiting until it’s over before starting up again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.