A sign at Nationals Park advising fans not to stand or rest their drinks on a rail.
Expect to see these signs around Nats Park this season. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Seating pods. Digital tickets. Color-coded gates. Even touchless condiment dispensers. Baseball games at Nationals Park will look and feel quite different this year.

On Major League Baseball’s opening day, Thursday, April 1, when they take on the New York Mets, the Washington Nationals will welcome fans back to the ballpark to watch the team in action for the first time since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. The D.C. government has allowed the team to host up to 5,000 fans in the stadium and the organization has put together health and safety protocols to encourage social distancing and prevent groups from congregating. Discussions between the Nationals and the District about increasing capacity for the team’s second home stand in mid-April have already begun.

It’s all a reminder that while a semblance of normalcy returns, the pandemic is not over. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published Wednesday finds that less than half of Americans would feel comfortable attending a live sporting event.

“Health and safety of our staff and our fans is of the utmost importance to the Nationals organization,” Scott Fear, the team’s vice president of public safety and security, told media members assembled for a tour of the ballpark Tuesday morning. “The main goal of our protocols is to create social distance and eliminate crowding around the ballpark. That includes the entrances, the bathrooms, the concession stands, the places where you normally see crowding, it’s our job that when people come in, [they] social distance and are able to enjoy the whole ballpark experience safely.”

When fans arrive at Nationals Park they will need to present a digital ticket via the MLB BallPark app and enter through a specific gate on the ticket, which will be color-coded to correspond with the closest gate to their seat and/or the easiest path to their seat. Fans that require an ADA-compatible entrance can enter through the closest available ADA-compliant gate.

The team has also updated its unpopular and baffling bag policy, first implemented two years ago, and made it even more stringent. Nationals Park will no longer permit fans to bring bags of any kind except diaper bags or clutch bags measuring 5 inches by 3/4 inch or smaller. Lockers will be available outside the right field gate and home plate gate. This policy will be in place through the 2021 season.

“A couple reasons for that, all due to the pandemic: It stops a contact point when you come into the ballpark,” Fear tells City Paper. “If you have a bag, you have to divest the bag, go through, security has to check it and everything like that. It gets rid of that. And also what that does is eliminate a lot of lines. So we want to keep social distancing to a max, and when we eliminate the bags coming in, a small clutch purse is very easy to open and see. Obviously diaper bags, when take a look at that, that will slow things down a little bit, but overall, it’s going to let people come into the park at all the different gates quickly [and] keep social distanced. We feel the fans are going to be understanding that we want their health and safety to be No. 1.”

Credit: Kelyn Soong

Another significant change is that fans can only eat and drink at their seating pods and must wear face coverings while not “actively eating or drinking.” Permitted face coverings required for anybody 2 years and older include KN95, N95, cloth, and 3-ply surgical masks. Bandanas, gaiters, or face coverings with an exhalation valve do not count.

“Fans who do not comply with the mandatory face covering policy will receive a verbal warning followed by potential removal from the ballpark,” Fear said Tuesday. “The safety of the Nationals fans is our biggest priority and adherence to the new health and safety policies is not negotiable.”

Concessions at the park will certainly look different. The team doesn’t want people crowding in the concourse while waiting for their food and is encouraging fans to order from their seat via the MLB Ballpark App. All payments will be cashless. Beer vendors will still roam the stadium, but they will only accept credit cards and contactless payment. Fans can exchange their money for eCash at Advance Ticket Sales, the Budweiser Terrace, or Guest Services in Section 131.

In terms of food offerings, the “only real major change” is that Fuku has replaced CHIKO in the location behind the scoreboard on the second level in Section 238, says Jonathan Stahl, the team’s vice president of experience and hospitality. He adds that the other replacements are of some of the team’s “internal concepts.”

Chesapeake Crab Co. is now Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in Sections 114, 140, and 306, and Taqueria del Barrio has replaced one of the nacho stands and will be available at Sections 129, 216, and 314. Arepa Zone and Grazie Grazie also have locations in the ballpark in Center Field Plaza and Section 114, respectively. True Made Food will be the team’s provider of condiments, and touchless dispensers have been installed throughout the park. The ballpark will have a “few more District Draft locations,” but there otherwise won’t be any changes to alcohol offerings, according to Stahl. The Budweiser Brew House will be closed.

“Everything’s really focused on our core offerings and making sure that we can safely feed people,” Stahl says. “You’ll see some of our fancier portables, we have less of them, just because you can’t have as many people standing around and waiting for food and some of those things take longer to make, so our goal is to get you back to your seat as quickly as possible.”

By the end of the summer, the Nationals expect to open their BetMGM sportsbook, which will operate seven days a week, in addition to releasing a mobile sports betting app. How many people will be in the stadium to take advantage of those opportunities remains to be seen.