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‘You can’t stop living’: Inside a Utah Jazz home game, during a pandemic, with 1,500 fans

One of just six NBA teams allowing fans right now, the Jazz’s Dec. 26 game made them a bigger part of the league’s experiment on playing a season outside the bubble.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A limited number of fans watch the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Kim Aoki has been a Utah Jazz season ticket-holder for 30-odd years, dating back to the old Salt Palace days. So when he got an email from the team inviting him to purchase tickets and be among the 1,500-plus fans inside Vivint Arena for the Dec. 26 home opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he didn’t even bother to discuss it with his wife, Nancy.

He just went ahead and bought the tickets.

Even though, at age 65, and Nancy aged 63, he is fully aware that they’re both in a higher-risk demographic for potentially contracting COVID-19. And even though, with some underlying health issues, he knows it’s riskier for him still.

“Just as soon as we got the offer, I was willing to do that,” Kim Aoki said. “It was an opportunity to get out and actually do something during the holidays, since everything else is pretty much shut down.”

The Salt Lake City resident knew the risk. He’d been keeping an eye on Utah’s daily coronavirus updates, even acknowledged that the numbers “give you concern.”

So then, why go to an hourslong indoor event with a couple thousand other people (between fans, players, team personnel, arena staff, vendors, and media) where such open-mouth activities as screaming and cheering and booing and eating will be taking place, while there’s a pandemic still ongoing?

Well, after reading up on the health and safety protocols the team and arena were putting into place, he felt like “it’s pretty safe.”

For the record, Nancy was not at all upset that he made a unilateral decision for them to attend.

“No. I work every day in a restaurant, and we’re totally safe,” she said. “You know, wear your mask, wash your hands, you’re good.

“If people do what they’re supposed to do …” she added, trailing off.

An hour or so later, Kim Richter, a 38-year-old from North Ogden, acknowledged that she’d had a brief lapse in the first half, and wasn’t doing what she was supposed to do.

“I was busted,” Richter said in a chagrined tone.

She had pulled down her mask so that her phone’s facial-recognition feature would unlock the device, then didn’t put it back in place.

“Hers was off for, I’d say about 45 seconds,” explained her date, 41-year-old Mike Flanagan, “and there was an usher over there saying, ‘You’ve got to keep a mask on.’”

Far from normal

Such are the issues the Jazz will have the rare distinction of facing, as one of just six NBA franchises allowing fans to attend games from the outset of the 2020-21 season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, and Toronto Raptors — playing this season in Tampa, Fla., because of the travel restrictions in place in Canada — are the others. Amended fan capacities in those teams’ buildings range from as few as 750 in New Orleans to 4,500 in Houston. (The Cavs originally were allowing just 300 fans per game, but the Ohio Department of Health just granted a variance which now allows up to 10% capacity within Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, or roughly 1,900 fans.)

The San Antonio Spurs were set to allow fans to attend beginning Jan. 1, but on Dec. 28 made the decision to hold off. The Atlanta Hawks have been allowing a few family members and friends of players inside State Farm Arena, but are planning to open at 10% capacity (about 1,700 fans) on MLK Day, Jan 18.

NBA TEAMS CURRENTLY ALLOWING FANS

Team, Arena, Current capacity

Cleveland Cavaliers, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, 1,900 (~10%)

Houston Rockets, Toyota Center, 4,500 (~25%)

New Orleans Pelicans, Smoothie King Center, 750 (~4%)

Orlando Magic, Amway Center, 4,000 (~21.2%)

Toronto Raptors, Amalie Arena (Tampa, Fla.), 3,800 (~18.5%)

Utah Jazz, Vivint Arena, 1,500+ (~8.2%)

While acknowledging there is some concern from the league about allowing fans back into arenas, NBA commissioner Adam Silver also told media on a conference call that he ultimately felt it best to leave such decisions up to individual franchises and the health organizations they answer to.

“It’s a recognition by the league office that one-size-fits-all solutions don’t necessarily make sense, given the varied conditions across the country,” Silver said. “At least for now, we’re satisfied that these decisions are best made market by market in conjunction with local health authorities that at least ultimately have to sign off on allowing fans into arenas.”

And so it was that, on Nov. 24, the Jazz announced their plan to “reopen with a reduced seating capacity of 1,500 in the lower bowl only and limited seating on the suite level,” to go along with an expansive list of safety measures:

“Seating pods” to enforce social distancing; plexiglas barriers; screening procedures at all entrances; contactless mobile ticketing and food/beverage ordering; in-seat delivery of Jazz Team Store merch ordered through the team app; cash-free environment; hand sanitizer stations throughout the arena; upgraded HVAC system.

“I’ve been coming to Jazz games for 15 or so years — I’ve never had dogs come sniff us at the entrance. I don’t know if that’s a COVID thing or what, but I’ve never seen that kind of security happen at a Jazz game before,” said 27-year-old Marshall McGonegal of Eden, who attended with his wife, Jen, and their young son Stockton. “So they’re definitely letting people know they’re serious tonight.”

A simple stroll around the arena would drive home just how far from normal the environment is, which is exactly what we did on opening night, with the Jazz playing host to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The upper level, as promised, was empty, save for radio personality/in-house promotions guy Tony Parks and a production assistant. The only reason to go up top was to utilize one of the cash-to-card kiosks. Even the restrooms there were off-limits, their doors adorned with signs providing the locations of in-use facilities.

On the main concourse, only about 40% of the eateries were staffed and open for business. Entrance to the team store was metered, with a security guard keeping count of those going in and coming out. Meanwhile, arena employees could be seen walking about, carrying either electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, or regular spray bottles and wiping rags, constantly cleaning high-usage surfaces.

A normal, sold-out (18,306 fans) Jazz game typically sees about 800 employees at work, from food services to the dunk team. The Dec. 26 home opener included about 175 employees.

“We were staffed over 20% of where we normally would be for an event that size, obviously to help with the ongoing efforts to clean and sanitize areas where people were trafficking,” said Jazz president Jim Olson.

All of this was done to instill an air of confidence in those attending that, in spite of participating in a mass gathering indoors during the pandemic, they were meant to feel safe as they could.

“The arena seems to have done a good job, like with the [entry process] and then the way everything is laid out with the seating,” said Jen McGonegal, 27.

“They’re taking it serious — when you walk in, there’s cops everywhere. I think they know there’s a lot on the line doing this, so they’re taking it even more serious than I thought that they would, for sure,” added Flanagan.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans get food at Maxwell's before watching the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Numbers game

Internal documents distributed to ushers and security projected an attendance figure of 1,000 fans that night, though one security official working the suite level discounted that number, saying he expected roughly 300 fans in the luxury boxes and about 1,500 total.

The box score that night listed the official attendance as 1,932, though Jazz spokesman Frank Zang later clarified that figure represented the number of “tickets out/sold,” and that the “actual in-person count was 1,581.”

Opinions varied on whether the 1,500-2,000 attendance level was the right one — though no one who was asked made the case for fewer people.

“Parking — not a problem tonight. Getting into the building — not a problem tonight. I mean, I feel like we’re here to see a Christmas play,” said Flanagan. “… [With more attendance], the vaccine’s got to be prominent, and I will have had to take the vaccine. If they bumped it up much more than this, we wouldn’t come. Or I wouldn’t.”

His date, the briefly maskless Richter, on the other hand, demurred, saying she “probably” would attend alongside more fans, though she did allow that “I like the fact that they’re blocking off seats around you, like every other row — that made me more comfortable.”

Jen McGonegal said that “I don’t think full capacity [would work] for me, but I wouldn’t mind more, like some on the upper level.” Her husband, Marshall, meanwhile, is of the opinion that the 1,500 figure is entirely too cautious, though he did acknowledge that his youth was perhaps making him brazen.

“The idea that COVID hasn’t already spiked here, in my personal opinion, is crazy. I figure our biggest wave happened before we even knew it was a thing here,” he said. “… [But] I’m ignorant enough and in a young enough demographic, and it hasn’t seemed to affect our age group as harshly. So I know that lets me feel a little bit more lax on everything.”

And yet, two men older than Marshall McGonegal were far more bold still.

Co-workers and buddies Jon Brunson and Hector Gudino have shared a season-ticket plan for five years, and while glad to be back in attendance, they were missing the full ambiance that usually comes with a Jazz game at Vivint Arena, and argued for its immediate return.

“I could be at full capacity right now and be pretty happy,” said Brunson, a 43-year-old from Layton.

Really?

“One hundred percent. As long as we’re safe, wearing masks, washing our hands, and making sure we’re not coughing on each other, we’ll be OK,” he added.

Gudino, a 32-year-old from West Valley City, agreed: “I say we just overwhelm this and just move on.”

Both mentioned that they had attended the Jazz’s game in New York back on March 4, when the pandemic was first starting to generate real concern in the United States even if its full scope was not really understood yet, and a week before Rudy Gobert’s positive test would effectively shut down sports for months. Gudino said their attitude about the pandemic, even then, was, “I’ve never been scared of it. It’s been kind of just roll with the punches and see what cards we’re dealt, and life moves on.”

Though Brunson did at least initially concede he might feel differently had he not already recovered from COVID-19 himself, he quickly pivoted from that assessment.

“I might be a little more hesitant … but no, probably not,” he said.

Regardless, Olson said there were no immediate plans for the Jazz to increase fan capacity.

“We have not identified a specific timeline. We will continue to watch our ability to operate in a very safe way, as well as where things are going in the general public,” he said. “And all of our decision-making process will be in conjunction with the State Health Department and the NBA. So we have no specific timeline, but we’ll be very conservative and careful as we move forward.”

Even as Brunson and Gudino were testing the bounds of hubris, though, the irony is that as the Jazz organization was admitting fans into the building, team officials also were reminding people that their presence there was, in fact, risky and dangerous. A warning displayed on the arena jumbotron read, in part: “Despite the protocols and requirements that we have put in place, no precautions can eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Traveling to and from, visiting, and/or providing services in and around the arena may lead to a risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A limited number of fans watch the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

On the inside

If the scene around the concourses wasn’t eerie enough on its own, the view from inside the arena proper, where the basketball takes place, certainly drove it home.

Vivint Arena is well-known throughout the NBA for creating a cascade of sound, with opponents frequently noting how it feels like fans are right on top of them. In this game, though, all those seats typically adjacent to the floor had been removed, as the organization effectively created a 30-foot perimeter around the court.

According to an email from Zang, some “500 feet of plexiglass has been installed: [a] wall behind the team benches; dividers between the loge seats; [in the] locker rooms; dividers between the Jazz radio and TV broadcasters (since they are not wearing masks during broadcast); [and in] concession stands and Jazz Team Store counters, as examples.”

The spaced seating was enforced via the installation of 4,500 seat covers and section tarps.

The pregame performance of the national anthem was done from the main concourse, the dance team did not take the the court during timeouts, and no halftime performance occurred at all, as access to the “event level” was restricted to players, coaches, essential staffers, referees, and game-ops crew.

And so it was that the game felt disorientingly quiet, even as sometimes-awkward fake crowd noise was piped in.

Nevertheless, those who participated in the 116-111 victory by Minnesota largely acknowledged that having even a reduced number of people in the building was a welcome step toward normalcy.

“I’m not going to lie — it was a breath of fresh air for all of us just to hear the fans,” said Jazz guard Mike Conley. “… It was great to have them in the building, it’s great to have our families in the building. It was just a great atmosphere, as it always is — one of the best in the league. And I’m looking forward to many more games like that.”

Wolves rookie Anthony Edwards said that after playing his first career game in an empty building, having some fans at his second game was a thrill.

“Actually, it was a dope experience,” he said. “For the second one to be that loud, for me to be in that type of situation, type of environment, it’s just a dream come true. Just hearing the fans — it just feels good to have fans in the building.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder praised the organization and its employees for “the detail and the care that they’ve taken to make the arena safe.” He would add, “It’s a taste of hopefully what’s to come when we get through the future months and hopefully come out of this situation and can get back to basketball as usual. Regardless, I don’t think any of us know when that is going to come, but until then, we appreciate everything that’s gone on and every opportunity we have.”

Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns, who has had seven family members die due to COVID-19, including his mother, was asked if he felt comfortable playing in front of fans.

“The way they were spread out, and [with the] plexiglas, it felt more like people were able to watch, but they were never really there,” Towns said. “But … I don’t think anything feels comfortable and normal at this point.”

Silver said that he was eager to consult with the six teams allowing fans on what their experiences have been like, and how they might impact other teams’ decisions.

“It’s a huge priority to get fans back in the arenas, but we want to be realistic about it. It’s my sense that we’re going to learn a lot,” he said. “… We’re excited to learn from those experiences, and it may be that once some teams do it and it’s demonstrated it can be done in a safe way for all the participants, it will cause some public health officials to maybe rethink sort of the rules in place in their markets, and even for some teams that currently could allow fans but at least haven’t decided to do so yet might also be more open to bringing some fans into their buildings.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seats are either available or taped off as a limited number of fans prepare to watch the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Along those lines, Olson said the Jazz organization came away pleased with how the night transpired. He said that staff had been well-trained to be on the lookout for people not consistently wearing masks, and that there were no major compliance issues. He said that the arena video system had been available in the event “there is an ongoing issue that we feel like just can’t be monitored with our existing staff that’s in place,” but he said it was not utilized that night.

He added that the staff would confab after each game to assess how things had gone and what might be improved upon, but that no significant changes were planned for now.

“We’re very pleased, the State Health Department is very pleased and supportive of the approach that we’re taking. The NBA is very pleased and supportive of the approach and how things are going,” Olson said. “So we definitely are considering it a success.”

So too did the fans who spoke up about being there.

Immediately after bringing up his health problems, Kim Aoki summed up his presence at Vivint Arena about as simply and succinctly as possible.

“You know,” he said, “you can’t stop living.”

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