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Fans are shut out of Nationals Park for now, but that could change

Fans have attended games at spring training this year. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The District of Columbia has denied for now the Washington Nationals’ request to host fans at limited capacity at Nationals Park when the season begins in April, doing so in a letter Tuesday while promising to revisit the question in about two weeks. That means the final answer on in-person attendance is still pending.

The team submitted a proposal Feb. 12 to have fans at Nationals Park starting next month. The proposal was in line with what other MLB teams have had approved by local or state officials, according to a person with knowledge of the process who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. The proposal, that person said, asks to have the maximum number of fans who could sit in small pods that would be spaced six feet apart in all directions.

D.C. can next choose to grant the Nationals’ desired capacity; allow fewer fans than the club requested; or not allow any fans for the time being, pushing the discussion to a later date. The city’s letter did give the Nationals approval to use their stadium for games, starting with Opening Day against the New York Mets on April 1.

“We are assessing the prevalence and impact of new, more transmissible viral strains on the progress we are making through our various public health measures, including our vaccination program, and expect to be able to get you some word on ticket sales for fans in the middle of the month,” Christopher Rodriguez, director of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, wrote in the letter. “With you, we are looking forward to fans returning to Nats Park. Answers as to how many and when are still premature.”

A Nationals spokeswoman declined to say what capacity the team proposed. The team’s official comment was that “we are working closely with the city and will continue to do so.”

The Nats can focus on baseball at spring training, but a reminder of the pandemic is nearby

The basic model, with fans wearing masks while in pods and with unused seats blocked off with tarps or zip ties, is being tested at spring training sites in Florida and Arizona. On Sunday, the Nationals played in front of about 1,500 fans in Jupiter, Fla. On Monday, they hosted fans at up to 18 percent capacity at their park in West Palm Beach, where the facility doubles as a coronavirus testing center. MLB had to approve each spring training stadium’s seating plan and is working with teams that remain in limbo for the regular season.

Since spring training began in February, a handful of prominent Nationals have not been shy about their preference.

Starter Max Scherzer on Feb. 19: “The fans should be in the stands, 100 percent. You can do it. We’re in outdoor stadiums. Fans need to be allowed to come into the ballpark. We can engineer a way around it. I don’t see any reason why not. So, hopefully, cooler heads prevail, we look at this pragmatically, and we get some National fans out there.”

And first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Feb. 25: “I know every state, city, they have their own rules for different reasons, and that’s way above my pay grade. But if you can safely implement it, or if you can start it at 10 or 15 percent and see how that goes for a couple weeks or a month, and then gradually build up, I think it would be good for everybody.”

And Manager Dave Martinez on Tuesday: “We want them in the stadium. We want to play in front of our fans. It would be nice to get them in there, and get them in there for Opening Day.”

Spring training games open with a most welcome sight: Fans back in the stands

There are two complicating and connected factors when comparing D.C. with other baseball cities: the NFL’s fan rollout and local rules. There is no NFL team under D.C.’s jurisdiction. And because the Washington Capitals and Wizards and D.C. United have not welcomed fans, there are not yet any local rules for attendance at pro sporting events. (A D.C. United official said Tuesday that the club intends “to work with the Mayor’s Office on a proposal to safely welcome fans back to Audi Field in 2021.”)

The Washington Football Team plays in Landover, Md., so D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the city had nothing to do with the decision of whether to allow fans this past fall. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Prince George’s County officials made those calls. But Ohio, for example, can pull from NFL experience with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals when it considers fans and stadium capacities for the Indians and Reds. It’s also helpful precedent for any city or state that wants to keep fans moving through the gates.

On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that the Indians and Reds can soon fill up to 30 percent of their ballparks. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, whose NFL teams hosted fans for some games this past fall — when cases were higher and vaccines were still in development — recently announced the Pirates and Phillies can have fans to start the year. The Phillies announced Tuesday that, similar to the Pirates, they’ll have about 8,000 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

In New York, the Yankees and Mets will be able to have their ballparks at up to 10 percent capacity. (Fans are required to get a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of the game they are attending.) In Texas, where fans watched the National League Division Series and World Series in October, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had approved 50 percent before completely opening the state Tuesday. It’s unlikely that, given MLB’s protocols, the Houston Astros or Texas Rangers will approach their usual crowds. But their governor says they could.

This all leaves the Nationals in a dwindling group. They worked with the city last summer to relax a specific coronavirus regulation for the team, but the request had a limited effect on the general public. The Nationals wanted their players, coaches and staff to be able to go straight from home to work during D.C.’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone who was potentially exposed to the virus.

The city obliged while expressing skepticism in response. Allowing fans back at Nationals Park is not a decision it can make in that manner.