Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Beer-breath mask is real: My trip to MSG shows what it’s really like at indoor sports events during COVID

A tall, cool one hasn’t tasted this good since ... all this ... began.
A tall, cool one hasn’t tasted this good since ... all this ... began.
Image: Rich O’Malley

Deciding to attend the first live sports event in New York City with fans in just under a year, indoors at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, had me very much channeling Sméagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

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We needs it! Covid stole it from us. Nasty, thieving Covidses. Sports is … our precious!

NO! We mustn’t! It kills us! Leave it!

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Pregame warmups. It honestly didn’t seem much more full than this even at tipoff.
Image: Rich O’Malley

In the end, I of course hurled myself into The City’s fiery lava pit of Mount Doom — in this case, The World’s Most Famous Arena. With great power comes great responsibility, and as NYC’s very own “One Lucky Fan,” who wrote the book on live sports attendance, I felt compelled to be the ring bearer for many of you out there contemplating that same decision. And I wanted y’all to be informed. I figure I’ve both:

  1. Been to a home game for literally every team at every stadium and arena in the Big 4 leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL).
  2. Spent the most time out of all of those at MSG, so I know its nooks and crannies intimately and know how to socially distance myself there as well as anyone.

This was my mission. So I determined to take every precaution I could. I would double-mask. I’d socially distance. I’d self-quarantine after and get tested. And off I’d go.

But, I want to start with this: Even though I had a good experience, I simply can not in good conscience recommend it to anyone else and say, “Off you go!” It would be irresponsible; we’re still in a pandemic and while cases are declining, New York still has the second-highest per-capita rate. If you are absolutely going to go, though, no matter what I say, please double mask, follow the protocols before and during the game, and avoid situations where there are throngs of people acting like dicks and shirking COVID protocols (and do not be one of them).

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But ... it turns out there really were no “throngs” to speak of. I didn’t have another person sitting within 10 feet of me. In fact,, there were only 25 socially-distanced people on line at Gate C (your specific entrance was listed on your ticket) when the doors opened just a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. It felt equally cavernous during the mass exodus of fans after the Knicks loss to the Warriors. I thought for sure the “Cattle Car Stairwells of Death”™ (real ones know) in the corner towers that I usually use in lieu of the non-moving escalators would be nothing more than COVID corridors.

Umm … nope.

The Cattle Car Stairwells of Death were nearly empty after the game.
The Cattle Car Stairwells of Death were nearly empty after the game.
Image: Rich O’Malley
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And those escalators and the main lobby? Still manageable without feeling unsafe.

The 10 percent capacity cap (roughly 2,000 brave souls) served to make MSG feel downright homey. Intimate. And the fans in attendance, at least those around me in Section 213, were superfans! They were excited to be there, they were boisterous, they were merciless toward Steph Curry and everyone wearing Golden State colors, and — at times, because they’re New Yorkers — even some of their own beloved Knicks. They were, however, as quiet as I’ve ever heard a venue for the moment of silence for the 500,000+ victims of COVID-19 — it was quite a goosebump moment. The Garden became a place of worship for just a few moments there and I hope I never need to hear it that eerily quiet again.

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It is not surprising that this seemed more of a “real fans” crowd than normal times. These were mainly season ticket holders (and waiting list members like me) who chose to smash the “refresh button” until it netted them their seats from already-slim pickings (and they sold out in way under an hour). You could see from the venue map on the purchasing screen just how spread out seating options were. It felt even sparser in person. Entire rows blocked off. Pods of only two or four seats were open to fans, with swaths of seats in between bound closed by zip ties.

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Note the pod of two seats in row two, followed by zip-tied swath.
Image: Rich O’Malley
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Pandemic protocols began even before walking through the doors, though. Four reminder emails were sent to all fans planning to attend, reminding us of some specific obligations if we wanted to make it inside.

Every attendee had to be PCR tested (no rapid tests) within 72 hours of game day and bring proof of a negative result. MSG partnered with Northwell Health/Go Health Urgent Care to ensure this tight turnaround. This involved a virtual visit with a nurse (which lasted all of about 45 seconds) and doctor (maybe 15 seconds), who then scheduled my COVID test for the next day at a nearby walk-in clinic. By Sunday afternoon I had my negative result emailed to me. For those who didn’t get results in time, there was also a last-minute test site set up at nearby Stewart Hotel. It offered “walk-in 30-minute rapid PCR COVID-19 testing,” which I didn’t know was a thing, is less accurate than a standard PCR test, and is not approved by the FDA. (And I wish weren’t reserved here for people who have the luxury of attending a non-essential game during a pandemic. Yes, I am telling on myself a bit).

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Attendees were also required to complete a medical survey in the MSG app on game day. Where we were asked what has sadly become standard fare questions like, “Have you knowingly been in contact with anyone who’s tested positive recently” and “are you experiencing any symptoms.”

All tickets were mobile, which wasn’t too surprising. But, MSG does need to work out the kinks on that: I was fifth in line, and it took about five minutes for the ticket-taker (with assistance) to figure out how to scan those first few tickets properly. Our temperature was also checked at the door, but this wasn’t done individually. Heat sensors were set up outside the lone entry-door that automatically took our temperature as we walked in. Total time from having my test result checked at the front door to my ticket being scanned inside was around 11 minutes. With a pile of people amassing behind me with every minute that elapsed, I hope this process gets streamlined for the next game Thursday night.

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Wearing masks was mandatory once inside, unless you were “actively eating or drinking” … and let me tell you, the “active” part of the rule was strictly enforced. I once dawdled for a few extra moments between bites to check my phone and was tsk-tsked by an usher to put my mask back on almost immediately. The same thing happened minutes later to someone behind me. “We want you all to be able to keep coming. Don’t make me call security.”

They were also sticklers about remaining in our seats. I was essentially escorted from the Chase Bridge section, while merely doing my usual pregame wander around a venue. I tried to explain this to security when asked what I was doing there, but I was met with a forceful: “YOU CAN’T JUST WANDER AROUND! YOU KNOW IT’S A PANDEMIC, RIGHT?! GO TO YOUR SEAT AND STAY THERE UNLESS YOU ARE BUYING SOMETHING OR GOING TO THE BATHROOM!” In normal times, I might’ve met such a security overreaction with a bit of snark, but you know what? Good on them. Over-enforcement was definitely welcome by this fan, and I simply obeyed my instructions and went to my seat.

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All merchandise and food/beverage transactions were cashless. Plastic shields were set up in front of each cash register at the open concessions, though the choices were slim with most specialty booths closed (including the craft beer garden — noooo!) Draft beer was also unavailable — it was all bottle/can service.

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Plastic shields up, taps closed.
Image: Rich O’Malley
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Six-foot markers systematically sprinkled the floor of every entryway into the seating bowl, and tubs of disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer pumps were placed on counters and tables throughout the venue. Safety signs hung everywhere, audio announcements constantly blasted protocol reminders, and videos with the same reminders played on the scoreboard regularly, just in case you missed the audio announcements.

The bare necessities ...
The bare necessities ...
Image: Rich O’Malley
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And yes, friends, only every third urinal was available for use (yes, of course I checked!).

Honestly, the worst part of the whole experience was wearing two masks for around five hours (from leaving home to arriving back). The back of my ears began to hurt like hell before the game started, and continued after I got home and took my masks off. I had to futz with my masks for a full quarter to stop my glasses from fogging up. And, for the record, hot-dogs-and-beer breath funneling directly into a mask and back up your nostrils for hours on end … that alone should have you rethinking taking this plunge!

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I make light because, dammit we need a little laughter these days. But, just as I said at the beginning: Just because my experience sounds safe, felt relatively safe, and was well-managed for the most part (and will hopefully not lead to any infections), doesn’t mean you should run out and do this yet. Just wait until you, and hopefully many, many others, are vaccinated. Honestly. This is entertainment. It’s alluring. Trust me, I know! (We needs our precious!) But we’re still in a freaking pandemic.

Just know the day is coming, sooner rather than later, that live sports will be available again to all of us, without having to play Viral Stratego. Without worrying that a sneeze will mandate a Department of Health shutdown of the entire venue. And, in the end, the atmosphere under these conditions is not the same. 10 percent of X-number of fans is not going to shake the foundations in the way that arenas should when the home team is cooking. This doesn’t feel like that. You may be having serious live sports FOMO after the longest year in eternity, but I’m telling you: You’re honestly not missing out. This is a novelty experience — nothing more. I believe the measures implemented at MSG and other venues around New York after the governor reopened their doors to the public felt just about right. But feeling right doesn’t mean it is right. And we’ll really only know in a few weeks as people who attend these games do or don’t start feeling symptoms.

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So, my advice? Continue to be a good citizen: Stay home and watch the games on TV. Soon enough our feckless governor, if he’s not rightly impeached, will wake up and whimsically change 10 percent to some new random percentage like 35 or whatnot, and what felt tolerable this week will start to feel ickier. It’s still too soon to completely let our guard down.

Now, baseball? … Outdoors? … That may be a different story … BAD, ONE LUCKY FAN! BAD!

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Stay safe and keep wearing a mask, everyone. We’re getting there.

Deputy Editor, Deadspin. Author, "One Lucky Fan: From Bleachers to Box Seats, Chasing the Ultimate Sports Dream to Visit All 123 MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL Teams." Earthwalker.