D.C. expands fan capacity, with Capital One Arena now opening

Max Scherzer felt the energy even 5,000 fans could bring when he took the mound for last week’s opening day. But between pitches, the Washington starter noticed the bare upper decks at Nationals Park.

He wondered why the stadium couldn’t host more fans, considering the seemingly ample unused space.

Scherzer’s wish has been granted. The District loosened coronavirus attendance restrictions on Friday, allowing the Nationals and D.C. United to increase attendance from 12% to 25%. Also, the Wizards and Capitals can welcome 10% capacity at Capital One Arena for the first time this season, becoming some of the last NBA and NHL franchises in the country to receive approval.

“To all the Caps fans out there, we’re really looking forward to getting you back in our building and you getting behind us,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s been a long time.”

When the Nationals welcomed 5,000 supporters for Tuesday’s opening day, they were the first team within the city limits to host fans in 13 months. The Wizards and Capitals were left waiting without an answer for longer, though, prompting Ted Leonsis to express his disappointment with D.C.

The Monumental Sports & Entertainment owner — the company that owns the Wizards and Capitals — wrote on Twitter that Washington was “on track to be one of the last American cities to host fans at indoor sporting events.”

That’s still the case, even after Mayor Muriel Bowser opened Capital One Arena to about 2,100 fans, effective immediately. The Capitals will return home to play on Tuesday, while the Wizards play Friday at Capital One Arena.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the only remaining U.S.-based NHL team without plans to allow fans back in the stands; the seven Canadian teams are playing without fans in attendance, too. The Wizards were one of eight NBA teams waiting for clearance to open back up to onlookers. Several NBA franchises are adding fans in the coming weeks, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, and the Golden State Warriors.

“Excited to welcome @Capitals and @WashWizards fans back to @CapitalOneArena!” Leonsis tweeted Friday. “Thank you @MayorBowser, DC Health and DC HSEMA for granting our waiver, which allows for 10% capacity / 2,100 fans.”

Meanwhile, many cities around the country started hosting fans again in February or earlier. For the World Series in Texas, Globe Life Field was opened at 25% capacity. The Rangers hosted more than 38,000 fans for their season opener last week.

New York opened stadiums at a 10% capacity in late February, mandating a negative PCR test within 72 hours of the event. Philadelphia has recently upped outdoor attendance to 25% while allowing 20% capacity at Flyers and Sixers games.

The Capitals have played in front of crowds this season on the road. Now, they’re excited to have somewhat of a home-ice advantage again.

“It makes a huge difference,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “Just from the arenas we’ve been in that have allowed fans, it’s not much, but you still can hear the noise and it creates a good buzz in there. I know my wife is excited to finally get to come to a Caps game, so it’s good.”

Winger Jakub Vrana agreed, noting how eerily quiet Capital One Arena has been without spectators.

“Our fans bring a lot of energy to our arena,” Vrana said. “They’re like an extra player for us. Even if it’s not going to be full, we’ll still be happy to see somebody in the stands cheering for us, giving us some extra energy. We’ve been missing that. Without them, it’s been quiet out there and just excited to get them back in the arena.”

The move to allow fans at Capital One Arena comes with a stipulation, though. According to the letter from Christopher Rodriguez, the director of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, alcohol sales have been modified.

At Wizards games, alcohol sales at concession stands will be discontinued after the second quarter, and in-seat ordering will end at the start of the fourth quarter. For NHL games, alcohol sales at concession stands end midway through the second period and stop for in-seat ordering at the beginning of the third. Neither team will have roaming vendors for games.

Still, the return of fans is a breakthrough back toward normalcy after more than a year away.

In a statement from the Nationals, the team said as the “vaccination rate increases across the region, we look forward to welcoming more fans in the future.” That begins at Nationals Park with Thursday’s opener against the Arizona Diamondback, with fans back in the upper decks.

“Very excited about that,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I love our fans. Let’s keep ‘em coming.”

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