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40,000 fans pack into Texas Rangers stadium despite COVID-19 threat

The Texas Rangers opened their 2021 season with a packed, socially snug crowd of 40,000 fans on Monday, defying the threat of the coronavirus in an attempt to get back to “normal.”

The Rangers lost 6-2 to the Toronto Blue Jays in front of a full crowd at Globe Life Field in Arlington on Monday, in a state that has aggressively re-opened despite the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The Rangers announced a sellout crowd of 38,238 — a number that does not include complimentary tickets at the stadium, which has a listed capacity of 40,518. The game was played with the building’s retractable roof open on a day when the temperature hit 24 Celsius.

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Fans were required to wear masks unless they were eating or drinking, though photos show many fans were watching without masks during the game.

Rangers fan Susanna Frare says she took a “calculated risk” by attending Monday’s game with her family. “Since it’s at full capacity, that was something that we gave a lot of thought about,” Frare told the Associated Press, while holding a young child in her arms.

“But since masks are required and we’re doing our part and we know that the ballpark is doing their part to keep everything clean and sanitized as much as possible, we just thought it was worth it to come on out here,” she said.

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Rangers fan Alex Posani says he was eager to see his team play in their new $1.2-billion stadium.

“I watched them build it,” Posani told the AP. “I’ve been excited for this park from the minute they announced they were going to build it.”

Fans look on as the Texas Rangers take on the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning on Opening Day at Globe Life Field on April 5, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The players also hailed the atmosphere in the building, after playing much of last season in front of socially distanced crowds or empty seats.

“It was definitely cool, that extra little adrenaline warming up and getting into the game,” Jays pitcher Steven Matz said. “It was fun. It felt really good to have fans in the stands.”

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Rangers shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa said he was thrilled by the atmosphere.

“It felt like it was my debut all over again,” Kiner-Falefa said after the game. “I think the introduction when I first came out, early in the game, that was probably one of the coolest moments of my career to this date. I appreciate the fans giving me the opportunity to feel that.”

Fans look on as the Texas Rangers take on the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning on Opening Day at Globe Life Field on April 5, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

“It felt like a real game. It felt like back to the old days when we had full capacity,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “Was hoping we’d see how loud our stadium got if we gave them something to cheer about. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that.”

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Daily case numbers and deaths have fallen in Texas since early this year, but the state is still averaging 3,000 cases and 82 deaths per day, according to state data collated by the New York Times. Sixteen per cent of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated and 28 per cent have received a single dose, the Times reports.

Videos and photos of the packed stadium provoked unease on social media, where many wondered why thousands would wedge themselves into a baseball stadium in the midst of a deadly global pandemic.

Others celebrated the sight of a full stadium as a return to normalcy — though most other sports leagues and franchises have indicated that it’s too soon to go back to business as usual.

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Gov. Greg Abbott lifted a mandatory mask mandate and opened the state “100 per cent” on March 2, defying coronavirus safety recommendations from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time. U.S. President Joe Biden ripped the decision, calling it the result of “Neanderthal thinking.”

“I think it’s a big mistake,” he said.

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Abbott had planned to throw out the first pitch at Monday’s game but he cancelled his plans early in the day, citing the MLB’s decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia. Abbott, who is a Republican, accused the MLB of playing politics for its response to a host of new Republican-led election laws in Georgia, which are expected to make it harder for minorities to vote in that state.

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The new laws were introduced after Democrats won two key Senate seats in the state, and after Joe Biden carried Georgia’s electoral college votes over former president Donald Trump. The laws include tighter voter ID rules, tougher rules for mail-in voting and a law that makes it illegal to give food and water to people standing in line at a polling site.

Infectious disease experts are mixed in their view of the Rangers allowing full capacity at this stage of the pandemic.

New Jersey-based medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail called it “misguided,” but former White House medical staff member Dr. William Lang said lower rates of infection and increasing rates of vaccination in Texas give the decision more credibility.

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“I know people will disagree with me,” said Lang, who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “Reasonable people will disagree on this one as opposed to some of the times we’ve been with this where reasonable wouldn’t disagree, they would just say, ‘No, this is stupid.’”

Fans initially followed the mask rules but only about 50 per cent of them were still wearing the masks during the middle innings, the AP reports. Stadium staff were not stopping maskless fans.

The Toronto Blue Jays are playing their home games in Dunedin, Fla., due to the pandemic and the difficulties of cross-border travel into Canada.

No other major sports franchise in North America has tried to re-open with a full crowd to date.

With files from The Associated Press

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