United can bump capacity at Audi Field from 10 percent to 25 percent for its first home match April 17 — approximately 5,000 fans. A Washington Spirit spokeswoman said the National Women’s Soccer League team was given permission to expand to 25 percent capacity at Audi Field for its April 27 match against visiting NJ/NY Gotham FC.
On Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the city was likely to ease capacity restrictions on entertainment venues and some other attractions in May, citing progress with vaccines and a plateau in daily coronavirus caseloads. But she offered scant details about Capital One Arena, suggesting fans could be back “soon.”
In discussing the waiver with Monumental, local officials worked with the city’s health department, which emphasized the need for limitations on where fans could congregate in the arena. That meant limiting the time frame concessions are available, among other safety measures, to encourage distancing, according to a D.C. government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
The city aimed to boost capacity at Nationals Park after reviewing data that showed Metro ridership to a recent home game was only about 600 people, the official said.
“It was important to understand how people were going to get to the stadium,” the official said, “so we didn’t increase risk as they were traveling to the game.”
Max Scherzer, Washington’s starting pitcher on Opening Day, praised the return of fans to Nationals Park but expressed confusion about the crowd size.
“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t let fans in the upper deck,” he said earlier this week. “I don’t understand why we can’t have more fans here. Somebody’s got to explain that to me because that doesn’t make sense to me whatsoever. So I understand that we need to be safe. I respect the virus. But we can also have fans in the top part of the deck. We can have more fans in here safely. So I would love an explanation, and like I said, that’s all I’ll say.”
The Nationals will next play at Nationals Park on Thursday. In a statement, the Nationals said they would expand capacity starting with that game. “As the vaccination rate increases across the region, we look forward to welcoming more fans in the future,” the team said.
The decision to expand capacity at sporting venues across the city came nearly a month after the D.C. government initially approved fans at Nationals Park and Audi Field. For the Capitals and Wizards, the city’s approval ends an extended stretch — more than a year — without fans in Capital One Arena.
As the pandemic began in March 2020, D.C. officials recommended that “nonessential mass gatherings” be postponed or canceled. Monumental said it would follow direction from the NHL, the NBA and local officials about playing games without spectators if necessary.
By March 11, the NBA had suspended its season. The NHL and other sports leagues soon followed.
More than a year later, most teams based in the United States have started to welcome back fans. In New York, a coronavirus hot spot during the early stages of the pandemic, professional teams were allowed a 10 percent capacity in February.
Around that time, Monumental prepared to reopen Capital One Arena. In February, the company sent an online survey to fans, gauging their interest in watching games in-person again. A month later, Monumental said it had applied for a waiver with the city to allow 10 percent capacity.
Earlier this week, though, company officials feared the teams would conclude the regular season without playing in front of fans. The Capitals’ final regular season home game is May 11; the Wizards end their regular season May 16.
“All of us [at Monumental] are disappointed with the city’s failure to grant our waiver allowing fans to attend [Capitals and Wizards] games this season,” Monumental CEO Ted Leonsis tweeted Monday. “Our staff have worked tirelessly putting in place numerous infrastructure upgrades & health and safety protocols to protect fans & staff.”
Monica Dixon, Monumental’s chief administrative officer and president of external affairs, wrote Friday on Twitter that the company was “grateful” that the waiver allowing fans in the arena was granted and noted that the company plans to release more information Monday.
Neil Albert, president and executive director of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, said he understood the need to balance the health of the city’s residents and its economy, using science as a guide to promote public safety. But delays in reopening, he said, present consequences for vendors, restaurants and retail establishments that rely on spending by visitors to the city’s sports venues to stay afloat. Even having 10 percent of capacity at Capital One Arena will boost the local economy, he said.
“Capital One Arena is a major economic driver for downtown and for the District of Columbia,” Albert said. “We’re anxious to see its reopening but very cognizant of the health risks involved.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report, which has been updated.