Boston sports fans are ready to return, but experts worry it's too soon

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

John Tackeff was at the final Red Sox game last year before MLB announced it was suspending its season due to Covid-19. He remembers thinking it would be his last game for a while, but couldn’t imagine the Red Sox playing at an empty Fenway Park, or going an entire summer without seeing the sight of the Green Monster.

When Tackeff walks through the turnstiles on Jersey Street this weekend, it will be a sweet moment. During our Covid hell, we’ve lost more than 500,000 lives and millions of livelihoods. But we’ve also lost millions of experiences — weddings, birthdays, and most importantly for us in Boston, summer nights at Fenway. That will change as soon as Thursday, when the Red Sox are slated to open their season against the Orioles with 4,530 fans in attendance.

For Tackeff, it’s been a long time coming.

“I've missed it a lot,” Tackeff, a season-ticket holder, told WEEI.com. “I'm a pretty big Red Sox fan, so I’ve gone to a lot of games. So it was sad. Just going back into a Spring Training game, or walking through and then seeing the field, that was a really good feeling.”

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker announced professional sports venues could begin hosting crowds at 12 percent capacity, due to falling Covid rates and increasing vaccinations. Since then, fans have returned to the Garden for three Bruins games, and a smattering of Green Teamers saw the Celtics fall to the Pelicans Monday. Though the Garden was permitted to host 2,298 people, it appeared fewer were in attendance.

Given the low probability of outdoor transmission — especially when people are masked and distanced — the Red Sox could see more of an attendance surge than the Celtics or Bruins. Cameron Lapine, a lifelong Boston sports fan from Merrimack, New Hampshire, says he’s going to hold off on the Garden until nearly every adult is vaccinated. “Until the 16-plus age group is widely vaccinated, I feel like in the outdoor environment where there's the airflow just feels a lot safer,” he said.

While vaccinations continue to rise — Massachusetts is now 13th in percentage of people inoculated — experts are alarmed about rising case numbers across the country. Massachusetts is experiencing a 15 percent increase in average daily cases from one week ago. On Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walenski said she was frightened about our current trajectory. “I'm going to lose the script and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” she said at a press briefing.

Throughout Covid, we’ve been engaged in a maddening pattern of prematurely loosening restrictions, before being forced to reinstate more onerous guidelines, says Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist. He worries opening up indoor sports venues to fans is part of another hastened reopening process.

“It's very clear that half-measures don't work,” he said. “They just kind of maintain this persistent level of unpleasantness, like we never really get safe enough that we can do the fun things safely again.”

Fans who watched the Celtics in-person Monday didn’t receive the typical Garden experience: players are separated by a barrier; crowding is forbidden; masks are mandated.

Still, Marissa Dodge, a Celtics diehard from Maine, says she plans to head down to Boston for a game later this spring. Fully vaccinated, her mind is at ease, but she thinks she would go even if she weren’t. “I don't know if I would feel differently if I wasn't vaccinated, to be honest. I mean, I'm almost saying that I would not feel differently,” she said. “I have really been good about taking the proper precautions. I think any sports team that has that much to lose is going to take some pretty hefty safety precautions in order to keep everybody safe.”

It’s important to note there have not been Covid outbreaks linked to pro sporting events in the U.S. Just 57 cases were tied to Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, for example.

More than one year into Covid, the smartest public health voices are preaching risk mitigation. Humans are social beings, and abstinence-only policies are proven failures. For many, catching a Red Sox or Celtics game is cathartic.

It’s also been proven large-scale events can be safely held outdoors. If the Black Lives Matter protests didn’t contribute to the spread of Covid-19, then it’s a fair to say a Red Sox game wouldn’t, either.

“I’m definitely ready to return to either the Garden or Fenway,” said Chris Currie of Chester, New Hampshire. “I feel like there are sufficient safeguards in place, for me, that would make it such that I feel safe attending.”

But we also know Covid-19 spreads more easily indoors, and fans are often at the Garden for three hours or more. “I’m glad I'm not the governor or the mayor having to make these decisions,” says Steven An, a Boston resident and medical researcher. “But hard as it is, just because you feel the economic pains or you're bored and you're exhausted and tired of the virus, the virus doesn't f— care.”

The most frustrating part to Scarpino is the hastiness of the debate. If vaccinations continue at this rate, he projects heading to Fenway or the Garden could be safe by May or June — provided there isn’t another surge.

Then we would risk restarting this ugly pattern.

"It's about a coin flip whether we're going to see a rise like we're seeing in Michigan, and maybe risk another lockdown before we get into summer,” he said. “Importantly, the recommendations that I and others had a month ago to leave the measures in place, we were actually confident that was going to get us back into the ballparks and hockey arenas and basketball arenas faster. We might be under 1 percent positivity, and you and I aren't even having this conversation.”