Covid-19 Tests Take Priority as New York City Arenas Seek Normalcy

Wall Street Journal

Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden to welcome back fans this week—under capacity limits and as long as the spectators test negative

When fans head to the Barclays Center on Tuesday, they will be entering a space where everyone around them, from NBA players to security guards, has tested negative for Covid-19.

It will be the first time since March 11, 2020, that spectators will be back in the arena, said John Abbamondi, chief executive of BSE Global, which manages and operates the building and the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association.

While it won’t be the same as having 20,000 people in the house, “there’s something really special about being one of a small number of people getting to witness a live NBA game,” Mr. Abbamondi said. “Those people are going to feel really fortunate.”

Nearly a year after Covid-19 first swept through New York City, there are signs pointing to a return to normalcy. This week, indoor-dining capacity restrictions will rise to 35% from 25%. Large arenas across New York state, such as Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, are allowed to open to fans and operate with a 10% capacity limit.

Weddings with no more than 150 guests can start again in mid-March. Indoor family entertainment can open later that month, with outdoor amusement parks to follow, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week. Even summer camps can begin to plan, he said.

‘There’s something really special about being one of a small number of people getting to witness a live NBA game.’

— John Abbamondi, CEO of Brooklyn Nets operator BSE Global

Statewide, the positivity rate of Covid-19 infections was 2.99% on Sunday, dropping to a one-day level last seen before Thanksgiving. In New York City, health-department data showed that the percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 is declining, and now stands at an average of 7.31% over the past seven days. Total reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths are also decreasing, according to the city’s data.

Meanwhile, roughly 12% of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, the state said Friday.

“The numbers are all going down, so now is the time to start doing more reopening,” Mr. Cuomo said Friday. “We’re making progress.”

Mr. Cuomo has pointed to the success in testing several thousand fans who attended outdoors Buffalo Bills games as the way forward for opening other large venues. That testing was handled by BioReference Laboratories, which last week opened several rapid-testing sites in New York City in partnership with the state.

Those sites, which are located in a CVS Pharmacy or private building, require appointments. Results are reported back in about 30 minutes, and each test costs $29.95.

Dr. Jon R. Cohen, executive chairman of BioReference, said the test is designed to allow people a sense of comfort to dine out or go to events. Some 200 such sites are planned around the state, he said.

“Everyone wants to begin to start returning to normal,” Dr. Cohen said.

Barclays Center will admit 300 fans for each of the first three games when the arena reopens to spectators, and attendance is expected to increase to nearly 1,800 a game by early March, according to a BSE spokeswoman. Attendees will be asked to swap whatever mask they arrive with for a fresh KF94 mask provided by the arena’s management. Instead of sitting 6 feet apart, fans will sit 9 feet apart, and courtside seats will be farther back than usual. The air inside will be turned over several times an hour. And to prevent milling in the concourse, fans will only be permitted to use the bathroom in their seating area.

Barclays decided that the best way to approach Covid-19 testing for fans was to send each ticket holder an at-home testing kit, with the cost of a kit baked into the price of admission. Fans need to complete the PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test within 72 hours before a game. A second rapid test will be used at the game for fans who have a test result that is between 48 and 72 hours old.

Mr. Abbamondi said providing fans with testing is a way to remove friction from the process. “While testing has become widely available, it’s not the most convenient thing to stand on line at an urgent-care center,” he said.

About 2,000 Knicks fans will be permitted to watch Tuesday’s game at Madison Square Garden, a spokesman said. Those attending must present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the day of the game; two testing providers have been lined up to help fast-track testing for fans. Attendees must also pass a health survey before the game. On arrival, guests will be given a temperature check.

To ease the amount of foot traffic in and out of Madison Square Garden, doors will open 90 minutes before the game and attendees will be assigned specific entrances based on their seating location. Face coverings are required at all times except for when eating, which is allowed only in assigned seats.

“We’re focused on creating the safest and most enjoyable environment, with strict operating protocols developed with state and health officials,” said Andrew Lustgarten, president and chief executive of MSG Sports.

As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape.

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