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Take me back to the ballgame: Nationals Park stadium employees return to work after a year without fans

Janice Johnson waits for customers at her beer stand at Nationals Park on Opening Day. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The crack of the bat on Opening Day marked more than baseball’s return to the nation’s capital. It meant that hundreds of food runners, beer stand attendants, dishwashers and concessions stand workers and other stadium employees were back to work for the first time in over a year.

“I’ve been excited for this day since the moment we won the World Series,” said Janice Johnson, 64, sliding a can of Bud Light across the counter on the first level of Nationals Park on Tuesday.

It was Johnson’s first day on the job since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, when the Nationals fell to the Astros in their last home game before clinching the title. It was also her first day back to work since surviving covid-19.

She said there were moments during the illness when she thought she wouldn’t live to see another game.

“But I’m feeling fabulous now!” she said through her black KN95 mask provided by her bosses.

Tuesday’s home opener against the Atlanta Braves brought 5,000 fans back to Nationals Park, and with them, joy and relief for the employees who were allowed to return after the coronavirus pandemic kept spectators out of the park for more than a year. The magic of Opening Day, however, was riddled with glitches that revealed how difficult it will be to regain any sense of normalcy — underscored by the fact that the debut matchup scheduled for last Thursday was canceled after three Nationals players tested positive for the coronavirus.

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On Tuesday, the lights were not working at District Drafts, Johnson’s beer station. Beside her, a small crowd of people formed staring at their phones and trying to figure out how to order their beer. Fans had to scan a QR code, download an app, create an account and select the appropriate stand to place an order.

“I just can’t get this to work,” said Peter Kroeber, a 29-year-old with a curly “W” tattooed on his right arm.

Johnson replied that she also didn’t know how to find her station on the app and sent him to another stadium employee for help.

Five minutes and two unsuccessful scans later, Kroeber had a Bud Light in his hand.

“Finally,” he said, cracking it open.

Upstairs, Laura Waters had two shots of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine in her body and a smile on her face. For a decade, Waters — a 65-year-old leader with Unite Here Local 23, a union that represents thousands of Nationals Park employees — found friendship and fulfillment serving drinks for the Nats. She was back at it on Tuesday after a year of being a full-time grandma.

She arrived at the park before noon and gathered outside of a garage by home plate with her co-workers. They had their temperatures checked, scanned bar codes from an online health questionnaire, received a boxed lunch and stepped into the stadium for the first time.

“I’m so ready not to be Grandma all the time,” said Waters, who had spent the last year in Davidsonville, Md., taking care of her grandchildren full time. “I need another dimension in my life that has adults.”

Waters was one of the lucky ones who had enough financial support to make it through the last year relatively unscathed. Through the union, she helped her co-workers navigate the unemployment system.

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Johnson, born and raised in Southeast Washington, was “holding on” financially thanks to unemployment checks and retirement money from hotels where she used to work. But she needed her job back for the sake of her three grandchildren, whom she took in after her daughter passed away in 2015.

Her full wages in tips would not return on Tuesday, but much of her paycheck did.

Waters estimated that she saw 2 percent of pre-pandemic sales Tuesday, but the elation of returning to the stadium made her hopeful for what summer may bring.

Randy LeFaivre, a 56-year-old with season tickets, was less enthused. Neither his payment app nor WiFi was working. He spent the first few innings trying to sort through technical difficulties.

“Total disappointment, that’s what this is,” he said.

A roar swelled from the ballpark as Nationals player Trea Turner hit a home run to tie the game.

“Boom shakalaka!” a man yelled, pulling down his mask to pour beer down his throat. “We’re back!”

The announcer said over the loudspeaker: “He hit it into the crowd, I’m glad to say. Last year we couldn’t say that.”

Outside of the stadium, on a street mostly devoid of vendors, Seddrict Griffin Jr. sold Nationals hats and T-shirts on the 10-by-10-foot piece of sidewalk he purchased more than a decade ago.

Without travelers from out of state or the additional 36,000 fans who used to be allowed in Nationals Park, Griffin’s sales rested at about 5 percent of a standard home game day. He didn’t care.

“Baseball is in the air,” he said, “and I’m here loving life.”

Inside the stadium in the bottom of the ninth, Nats outfielder Juan Soto hit a walk-off single to give the Nationals a 6-5 win. The crowd, back for the first time in a year, joined in a chant of “Let’s go, Soto.”

For Nats fans shut out of the park, a strange opener