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Update 8/8: D.C. United announced Saturday that it will play three home games in August and September at Audi Field with no fans present. Six additional home games will be announced at a later date, which could still include fans.
Last month, D.C. United dispatched its chief legal counsel to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting with a task: Get the group behind the team’s plan to reopen Audi Field to fans in the 2020 season.
It’s safe to say the presentation did not succeed in getting the commission on board with the plan. In fact, it seems to have done the opposite.
Following the meeting, ANC-6D, which represents residents in the Buzzard Point neighborhood where Audi Field is located, drafted a resolution opposing D.C. United’s plan and sent it to Mayor Muriel Bowser, the D.C. Council, and others.
The resolution urged Bowser to reject United’s plan in the interest of “protecting the lives of thousands of vulnerable residents of Old Southwest living directly adjacent to the Stadium and whose families are most significantly impacted by COVID-19.”
Though D.C. United doesn’t require the approval of ANC-6D to move forward with its plans, it does require multiple special exceptions from the District under its ReOpen D.C. guidelines. At this point, neither appears to be forthcoming.
“They have all these basic protocols for how they’re going to treat their fans when the fans are in the stadium, the problem is they don’t have a plan for how these 5,000 folks are going to get to the stadium,” Gail Fast, chair of ANC-6D tells City Paper. “Fans come from all over, fans have family and friends and do things in other jurisdictions that we have no control over and to put 5,000 fans in direct contact with our residents we felt just wasn’t really very neighborly.”
United’s plan calls for timed entries to avoid fans crowding in front of Audi Field. Between spectators following strict arrival times and nearby bars and restaurants being capped at 50 percent capacity indoors, Fast believes the neighborhood will take on plenty of risk and not reap the usual benefits of hosting home matches.
“I don’t see it as a benefit to the neighborhood at all,” Fast says, “I see it wholeheartedly as a benefit to D.C. United.”
D.C. United’s plan comes with Major League Soccer in the midst of a successful return to play in a bubble environment in Orlando, Florida. After a rocky start that saw two teams excommunicated due to positive tests, the MLS is Back Tournament has helped prove the efficacy of sports in a bubble during the COVID era.
With the tournament ending next week, MLS is eyeing a return to matches in home markets—a far more challenging proposition.
Major League Baseball and the United Soccer League, the division below MLS, have been among the first American leagues to play games in local markets during the pandemic. Though play has been going for less than a month, both have already seen a host of games postponed due to outbreaks of the virus.
D.C. United did not disclose details of how it plans on reducing risk for team personnel or fans who attend matches, but the team insists it has not forgotten about those who live near Audi Field as well.
“D.C. United remain committed to the health and safety of our fans, players, staff, and all community members across the city, especially those who neighbor Audi Field,” the team said in a statement to City Paper. “As the club plans for the potential of hosting games at Audi Field we have sought input from our local community and surveyed our fans on their comfort level for attending games to help direct decision making. The club will continue to work closely with Major League Soccer, as well as our local government and health officials, as we evaluate what a potential return to Audi Field may look like.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Bowser confirmed that D.C. United would require a special exception for two guidelines if the team is to host fans at Audi Field. First, under the current Phase 2 of ReOpen D.C., gatherings are limited to 50 people or fewer. Second, the mayor has ordered all people traveling into D.C. from 27 high-risk states to quarantine for 14 days, which would likely impact several D.C. United opponents.
At this point, D.C. United has not made a request for either exemption.
The team may also be pursuing other options outside of the District. The Athletic has reported that United is considering playing at Segra Field in Loudoun County, Virginia, and Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
Fans or no fans, playing any games outside a bubble environment may not be safe amid the ongoing pandemic in the United States. In the neighborhood that encompasses Audi Field, residents would prefer any experiment take place far away.
“All of the benefits will go to D.C. United,” Fast says. “It just was something that made us sit there and think, ‘Do you really have to do this?’”