The five-month wait has been hard for Luis Dollar, president of El Matador, an FC Dallas supporters’ group. “Man, not seeing our team out there was brutal,” he said. “We miss our team.”
After the MLS is Back tournament in the Orlando “bubble” concludes on Tuesday, Dallas will host Nashville at Toyota Stadium on Wednesday and Sunday, marking the return of regular-season Major League Soccer games at club stadiums. And the return of fans in the stands.
Dollar plans to be there for his team’s first match since March, though the choice is not without risk. At least, that’s what the 1,438-word legal waiver to enter the stadium says. It requires attendees to acknowledge the possibility of exposure to Covid-19 and to agree not to sue.
The evening promises to be an uncanny experience, familiar yet foreign. Dollar hopes the El Matador band – masked and spread out – will be able to liven the atmosphere as usual. At the age of 22, Dollar, is at low-risk age for serious complications from Covid-19, but he said that “a lot of our older members, or members that have babies or young children, are going to be staying away”.
Ordinarily, El Matador might number 300; on Wednesday he estimates the figure will be closer to 50. Since singing and yelling are known risk factors for viral spread, he has ordered extra-thick face masks in the hope they will help.
“A lot of our members are saying: we’re going to go Wednesday night, we’re going to be on our best, most safe behaviour, but if Wednesday night for some reason the protocols aren’t kept in place, or we don’t feel they’re being run in a way that we deem fit, we might not show up on Sunday,” Dollar said. “As of right now we’re confident.”
The NBA, NHL and MLB are currently playing behind closed doors, but they have much more lucrative television deals than MLS, which is more reliant on gate money. About five teams are considering playing in public, according to ESPN. “Playing matches with fans in local markets is a step towards some sense of what the new normal in sports is going to be. We have to start. We have to give it a try,” the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, told reporters.
Still, as one of the worst-affected states in one of the world’s worst-affected countries, Texas is a questionable location for the league to take the tentative step. The state has bungled its pandemic response, resulting in severe strain on hospitals, inadequate contact tracing and extensive community spread that shows few signs of abating. According to the New York Times, as of 9 August the seven-day average of new reported cases per day in Texas (population 29 million) was 7,843: more than France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK combined (combined populations 324 million).
“I think MLS is showing a complete disregard for the health and safety of their fanbases and the communities in which they play. I think it’s ridiculous that they’re talking about having fans,” said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia.
“The risks of gathering a lot of people together for a sporting event are real and they are not just restricted to the fans who attend, but [exist for] their families and anybody who happens to bump into them at a grocery store, or at their job,” he said.
Dawn Comstock, an epidemiologist specialising in sport at the Colorado School of Public Health, believes that opening up to fans is “pretty irresponsible at this point, particularly in a state where there’s a high level of community spread like Texas.”
She added: “Being at an outdoor stadium is not the highest risk - the highest risk would be having 5,000 people inside a high school basketball arena screaming and yelling. But even outdoors, having large gatherings of people particularly when you know that they’re going to be chanting, yelling, screaming, singing, those kinds of activities, it’s high risk. So the question is, is it worth it? What’s the value?… There are very few arguments for what possible benefit there is for watching in person versus watching on TV or livestream.”
MLS plans to test players and key staff every other day as teams return to competitive action across the US (but not yet Canada) this month. The plot twist of kicking off with games between Dallas and Nashville is that they are make-up fixtures required because both sides withdrew from MLS is Back when nine players from Nashville, and 10 from Dallas, plus a coach, tested positive for Covid-19.
“We’ve thought about this incredibly carefully,” said Gina Miller, an FC Dallas spokeswoman. She said that the club has consulted with state and local officials and its medical task force and is committed to “having the proper precautions in place to ensure everyone is going to be safe”, and to learning from its own outbreak.
Miller said that stadium staff are familiar with safety protocols as the venue has recently hosted other events, such as high school graduations, while Dallas’s lower-league affiliate, North Texas SC, is – like other USL teams – already playing in front of spectators again.
She said that the club polled more than 900 fans and over half said they would feel confident and safe attending a socially-distanced event, “so we listened to them and are trying to serve them in the best way possible”. Masks will be required at all times, seating, entry and movement spaced out, high-touch areas cleaned frequently, and payments will be cashless.
Some states currently prohibit fans from attending games but Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, issued an executive order in June allowing sports venues to open at up to 50% of capacity. An estimated 15,000-20,000 fans attended a Nascar event near Dallas last month. FC Dallas are limiting attendance to 5,110 - about a quarter of the stadium’s capacity. It is unclear how large the crowd will be on Wednesday.
Amid the US’s ongoing feckless pandemic response, Binney said that it feels too soon to invite supporters back to stadiums. “That’s not something that we’ve earned as a country,” he said. “Why can’t we just take it more slowly and recognise that this is one of the least essential things that we need to bring back? And not just soccer, I’m talking about any sport.”
He worries the move could act as a signal that it is fine to resume a largely normal life – a dangerously premature notion, especially in states such as Texas that are suffering because they eased lockdowns too quickly.
“The truth is, things aren’t normal yet,” Comstock said. “They just aren’t. That’s our reality.”