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For Anthony S. Fauci, going to a ballgame is ‘the one fun thing I can’t wait to do’

Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, looks forward to returning to Nationals Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, says the “top” thing on his to-do list once conditions allow is return to a baseball game. As Major League Baseball opens its season Thursday, thousands of fans will have that opportunity. All 30 teams will begin the season allowing at least some fans to attend in person, with one team even putting no limit on attendance for its home opener.

Fauci spoke to The Washington Post this week about baseball’s return and his comfort level with fans in the stands, even as coronavirus infection rates have risen in recent days and some government officials have started bracing for a possible fourth wave of the pandemic. (Questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Q: There were no fans allowed at baseball games last year during the regular season, but a lot has changed since then. Are you comfortable with spectators attending games in person right now?

A: I think that what we’re going to be seeing as the season progresses and as we get more and more people vaccinated and the level of infection comes down in the community, there will be more flexibility in getting more and more people into the ballpark. Hopefully by the time we get in the full swing of the season, there’ll be a lot more people that could feel comfortable being in the ballpark. I mean, obviously, there will still be the masking requirement. There will still be spaced seating.

One of the things we have going in our favor is that every day we vaccinate in this country, close to 3 million people every single day. And the more people that get vaccinated, the less likely it is that you’re going to have an issue. Now, obviously, we are still concerned that the rate of infection in the country is still quite high. It’s still plateaued now at somewhere between [55,000] and 65,000 new infections per day, which is quite high.

However, if we continue to implement the public health measures that we talk about all the time — the wearing of masks, the avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors, the washing of hands — and as more and more people get vaccinated, I think there’s going to be more and more flexibility and greater attendance at places like [Nationals Park].

Q: To start, the Washington Nationals are among the teams that will have only a few thousand people allowed in attendance —

A: Whatever they start off with, I think it’s going to get better and better as we get into the season. And then hopefully by the time we’re into the season, we’ll even have a great deal of flexibility and more and more people.

Post-U-Md. poll: Fewer than half of Americans feel comfortable attending sports in person

Q: A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found 2 in 3 Americans say they’re comfortable attending an outdoor event such as baseball, but fewer than half say they’re comfortable going to an indoor event such as basketball. Is it safe to assume those concerns are warranted?

A: There’s a big difference between indoor and outdoor. We know that from experience that when you’re in a place like [Nationals Park] and particularly if you’re well spaced and you’re seating and you’re wearing a mask, the chance of spreading infection is extraordinarily low. Outdoor is clearly far, far safer than indoors because of the recirculation of air indoors. Whereas outdoor, you know, you have a dilution with the entire environment, so that’s why the risk is so much lower in an outdoor [setting]. That’s why stadiums like [Nationals Park], if you have an appropriate, prudent spacing of people, the risk is very low.

Q: In the poll, 64 percent of people said they would be comfortable attending if everyone was required to wear a mask. Even at outdoor events with spacing in the stands, do you think masks should be considered mandatory?

A: Yeah.

Q: Baseball stadiums will have a wide range of attendance capacities — from 12 to 100 percent, with many closer to 20 to 25 percent. Is there a magic number?

A: It’s nice to think that we have a mathematical precision in figuring out what the right number is, but it’s just not true. It really depends a lot on the level of infection in the community where the ballpark is located. You’re going to assume that the overwhelming majority of people that are going to show up at the ballpark are from the area where the ballpark is located.

The judgment of what percentage of capacity you’re going to have is likely going to be influenced by what the level of baseline infection is in the community surrounding and the geographic area of the ballpark.

Q: It stands to reason that baseline number will be different everywhere, so we will see different attendance limits throughout the season. But one team is opening the season at 100 percent capacity. What do you make of that?

A: What team is that?

Q: The Texas Rangers in Arlington.

A: Really? Well, that’s interesting. I don’t want to be critical of that, but that’s — I would not start off with 100 percent capacity. But, you know, Texas has been always a bit more — what’s the right word? — daring when it comes to the kinds of things that they want to do in regards to this outbreak.

Q: On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Yankees and New York Mets are requiring proof of a full vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for every ticket holder. Should that be mandatory?

A: I don’t really want to pass judgment, because then I get pitted against entire organizations. So, I mean, everybody has their own way of doing things. One of the ways is to require a negative test or proof of vaccination. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but it’s going to vary. As you said, some ballparks are allowing 100 percent capacity. Some want to start off at 10 to 20 percent capacity. And because everybody does things independently, you’re going to have a great variety of requirements that people are going to have. And one of them might be a negative test and proof of vaccination.

Q: You mentioned the importance of people maintaining their distance. Many teams are offering only cashless transactions at concession stands. Does that feel necessary to you?

A: That’s a creative way. Any way you can diminish personal interaction with someone that’s not a member of your own family, I think, would be a step toward more safety. So anything that’s creative, including — because we know that when people go to the concession stands, that’s when people are close and that’s where the risk increases. So anything that can minimize the risk in that environment, I think, would be a positive.

The ballpark is a summer sanctuary. These fans help explain why they missed it so much.

Q: The baseball season is obviously long. How do you see stadium restrictions evolving in the coming months?

A: I hope that as we get into the late spring, early summer, that we get more people vaccinated. Every day you’re going to get up to 3 million people in this country vaccinated. The more people that get vaccinated, the safer it is for everyone. I would hope that as we get into the late spring and early summer that you’re going to have a lot more flexibility on people in the stands.

Q: The NBA and NHL playoffs will get going before summer — May and June. Is it possible those will be safer to attend in person?

A: It’s going to really depend on the level of infection in the community. That really is the determining factor. If the infection numbers go way down as more people get vaccinated, there can be more flexibility indoors.

Q: What about you? We’ve all heard about your affinity for the sport — will you be attending a baseball game any time soon?

A: My life has just been completely dominated by response to this outbreak, but if you’re asking me what’s the one fun thing I can’t wait to do, it’s to go to [Nationals Park] and watch the team.

Q: You went last year. Are you eager to have a do-over at the first pitch?

A: I don’t know about that. But I certainly am going to be rooting for them, that’s for sure.

Q: So no first-pitch plans?

A: Not right now.

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