A limited number of Miami football fans can make plans to watch college and professional games in person next month, even as South Florida remains behind the rest of the state in reopening its economy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared Monday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and pointed to a decrease in positive coronavirus tests as he supported plans to allow 13,000 fans, about 20 percent of capacity, into the stadium for home games of the Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami Hurricanes.
“When you watch the NBA with an empty arena or Major League Baseball with an empty stadium, it’s just not quite the same,” DeSantis said. “And I know this isn’t going to be people falling from the rafters here, but I think it is something that will give people a little bit of hope.”
Miami-Dade County and neighboring Broward and Palm Beach counties have topped the rest of the state in coronavirus cases and deaths. As a result, they have been left out of the second phase of DeSantis’ effort to revitalize the economy.
But DeSantis said last week the three South Florida counties were on the verge of joining the rest of the state in the second phase of reopening because of downward trends in the rates of positive tests for the coronavirus.
While he again stressed positive trends Monday about tests results, hospitalizations and infections among long-term care staff members, DeSantis didn’t mention moving the three counties into the next phase of reopening.
The football stadium, however, is set to host fans for the Sept. 10 game between the University of Miami and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and for the Dolphins’ home opener 10 days later against the Buffalo Bills.
“This is obviously a limited plan,” DeSantis said. “But if you look at what they’ve done, it’s really well thought-out, and probably they thought of things that I would not have thought of.”
DeSantis also pointed to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando being able to open the past couple of months by taking “the basic steps to make sure that it’s done safely.” He also indicated he looks forward to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers making similar plans.
In early July, the Jaguars advised season-ticket holders the team expected to play home games “in compliance with state and local authorities and following CDC social distancing guidelines” at 25 percent capacity in the 67,164-seat TIAA Bank Field.
A Buccaneers spokeswoman said Monday no decisions have been made regarding fans at Raymond James Stadium.
U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Miami Democrat, was among a number of Democrats who quickly questioned the wisdom of bringing fans into Hard Rock Stadium.
“It is difficult to open anything in a pandemic, much less a stadium for live sporting events, when you have community spread,” Shalala, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and president of the University of Miami, tweeted. “We’ll continue seeing inconsistent progress fighting this virus if we again loosen restrictions immediately just as cases are starting to go down.”
Local and team officials said the plan will only succeed if fans abide by new health protocols.
“They’ve done the best they can in providing an environment that can make it as safe as possible,” Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said. “Now we’re going to see how the community behaves. Whether we do our best. Whether we can come to a game and be compliant and not be aggressively non-compliant. This idea that you don’t want to wear a mask, and no one can tell you whether you wear a mask, if that’s your idea, please, that idea is not welcome in this city and is not welcomed in the stadium.”
Miami Dolphins Vice Chairman and CEO Tom Garfinkel said the goal is to expand to half capacity as the season goes on, but there is a chance games would be played without fans if people don’t follow the rules.
“Right now, we feel confident that we can do this,” Garfinkel said.
Besides a requirement that fans wear masks, changes include the elimination of pre-game tailgating in parking lots, staggered gate entry times, socially distanced seating clusters, app-based food ordering to reduce lines at concession stands and cutting off alcohol sales at halftime.
The stadium has also upgraded its air conditioning to “hospital” standards, added touchless security screening that eliminates the need for people to remove all items from their pockets and touchless toilets and faucets.
Garfinkel said the stadium, owned by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, will follow an open-air theater model that has been in use the past few months at the complex, which has allowed several hundred people in at a time for events.
“They’re outdoors. They’ve been respectful,” Garfinkel said. “And they’ve been distanced. And it’s worked.”