This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
The same holds true in the COVID-19 era. Adjusting on the fly is crucial for every organization — including sports clubs — that hope to outlast a virus that’s killed more than 5,500 Washingtonians, throttled our economy and dragged us into extra innings.
With that in mind, we tip our cap to the Tacoma Rainiers. Embarking on their first competitive Triple A season since 2019, the ballclub opened Thursday with a six-game homestand at Cheney Stadium and immediately had separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated fans, in line with Gov. Jay Inslee’s new guidelines.
The message to the Rainiers faithful, team President Aaron Artman told us: “Now that you’re vaccinated you can sit in the same seats that you may have had for years, and you can operate pretty much freely in the park.” Wearing masks (except while eating or drinking) still applies to all.
Inslee announced last week that outdoor venues may now add vaccinated sections for events such as sports, graduations and religious services. Total capacity can expand to 50 percent maximum or 22,000 people, whichever is lower, as long as no more than 9,000 unvaccinated people are admitted. Indoor facilities have tighter restrictions.
This is excellent news for the Rainiers as they strive to keep the pro baseball torch burning bright in Tacoma. The team had planned to hold Cheney Stadium to 25 percent capacity at least for the month of May under the governor’s previous spectator event rules.
Now the Rainiers can accommodate all their nearly 4,000 season ticket holders without rotating them around the ballpark, while creating capacity for some single-game tickets, Artman said.
The team also deserves credit for joining the Seattle Mariners and Sounders in offering on-site vaccinations.
Shots were available Saturday on the fourth floor of the Party Deck, as well at yet-to-be-announced future home games.
Additionally, children younger than age 16, who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine but want to sit in a vaccinated section with older family members, can do so if they pass a rapid COVID-19 test outside the stadium.
The Rainiers will roll out the seating changes in phases. Artman told us that for the first homestand, three rows of Dugout Club seats behind home plate were designated for vaccinated season ticket holders, plus part of the upper-reserved section — a total of around 1,500 seats. For the second homestand later this month, they plan to expand it to the whole lower box seat area — a total of around 2,800 seats.
Artman acknowledged some fans can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, others won’t roll up their sleeves for political or other reasons, and many are generally jaded by COVID-19 fatigue.
The seating changes aren’t intended to make a statement or pass judgment, he said. “Our job is to get people in the stadium and give them the benefits of the seats they paid for.
“I also think we’re being realistic. Clearly vaccination is the main metric and the key to getting the case count down. All we’re doing is playing within the rules.”
Some may complain that allowing special seating for vaccinated people creates a caste system. State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, spewed an offensive comparison to Jim Crow racial segregation.
Such criticism will likely echo across America in coming weeks as vaccine supply surges, excuses not to get a shot evaporate and various organizations try to incentivize people to get protection from the virus.
But make no mistake: Separating vaccinated from unvaccinated people in large crowds is a reasonable step to move us closer to semi-normal life.
Anything that allows more people to attend a ball game ought to help democratize public gatherings and engender community spirit.
Just ask Steve Jaech of Steilacoom, a longtime Tacoma minor-league baseball fan. He doesn’t have season tickets but attends several Rainiers games each season.
“It’s a delightful place to stop time for a few hours,” Jaech told us. “We’ll be there, as soon as it becomes available to us. It’s really something I look forward to in the spring.”
All in all, the Rainiers are demonstrating a winning flexibility by acting quickly on the new guidelines for spectator events. So did Inslee by agreeing to them.
We wish the Tacoma ballclub much success as early adapters in this statewide experiment. Play ball.