Phoenix Municipal Stadium's parking lot currently acts as a vessel of hope, a place where hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines are administered daily with the aim to help eventually end the pandemic.
Just across Priest Drive, the stadium itself has served as a peek into a life where that hope materializes after allowing a limited number of fans into ASU baseball games over the past three weeks.
After many months of planning, Sun Devil Athletics officials said enforcing protocols and compliance is key to safely allowing fans into games, a point that health experts agree with. However, two health experts were split on whether the decision to allow fans into games was made too soon.
On March 4, Sun Devil Athletics announced it would permit a limited number of fans to attend outdoor spring sports events. The announcement outlined protocols for attending games, including mandatory mask-wearing for anyone over 2 years old, what types of masks were allowed and a maximum occupancy limit of 25% among other regulations.
Over 700 people attended each game against Utah from March 5-7, filling up about 11% of 6,382 seats in the stadium. Each of ASU's past four home games drew over 1,300 people, including 1,478 on March 14 — 23% of the stadium's capacity. With continuously increasing attendance, the stadium may hit its limit at ASU's home game on Friday.
Michael Meitin, senior associate athletic director of Sun Devil Athletics, said ASU continuously drafted and revised its plan to allow fans into sports events for nearly a year.
Meitin said ASU implemented additional protocols aiming to decrease density at the front gate of Phoenix Municipal Stadium, such as not allowing bags into the stadium and not requiring temperature checks. All employees working at the game, however, are required to take temperature checks before entering the stadium.
He said ASU shaped the plan to prioritize students, season ticket holders and "community partners," but the general public is still allowed to buy tickets online or at the door.
As the state's daily COVID-19 cases continue to decline and more people receive a vaccine, Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said ASU's decision to permit limited fan attendance at outdoor sports events was "reasonable," but "it's only good if they follow through" on enforcing protocol.
He expressed concern over fans intentionally buying food with the intent to use it as an excuse to not wear a mask. However, he believes ASU is in a "much better position" to enforce mask-wearing than most entities.
James Vujs, director of Phoenix Municipal Stadium, said he reminded a few people to wear their masks across ASU's series against Utah but said most have been compliant with mask-wearing. He said most repeat offenders complied after telling them wearing masks "is what we need to do to be able to have you here."
Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti, director of public health, prevention and health promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, said the decision to allow a limited number of fans into games was premature and attending one is still "not without risk."
He said since everyone in the state 16 years or older is allowed to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments starting Wednesday, providing proof of receiving a vaccine should be required for entry to act as a "safety mechanism."
While he acknowledged such a measure would have seemed "Draconian" a few months ago, with vaccine eligibility opening up, he said those who have been vaccinated should be "rewarded" by being allowed to attend games.
"If everybody who's allowed to be there (is) vaccinated, then ... I think then you can feel a lot more confident about the safety of everyone involved," Marvasti said.
With fans still looking to get their fix for live sports, Marvasti agreed with Humble that enforcing mask-wearing and distancing is key to keeping people safe.
Those who attended ASU's home games are relishing the opportunity to watch sports in person, providing a glimpse into what life was before the pandemic.
Clayton Smith, a junior studying sports business who attended ASU's game against Utah on March 7, said the current protocols set at Phoenix Municipal Stadium provide a safe in-person viewing experience during the pandemic.
"You just got to get to know to have your mask on the whole time, but it's doable," Smith said. "I'd rather have to wear a mask and be able to be here than not be able to watch a game at all."
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Jeffrey Horst is the digital editor-in-chief of The State Press. He previously served as the publication's sports editor and worked at Cronkite News and ArizonaSports.com.