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A Look At The Charleston RiverDogs' Reopening Plan

Its season has been paused for the past nine weeks because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, but at some point, whether it’s in 2020 or 2021, minor league baseball will return. When that happens, teams have to be ready to adjust to a new way of life.

Even when teams and fans are back at stadiums across the country, a day at the ballpark is unlikely to look anything like it did in any previous year. A sellout will be a fraction of what it used to be, and social-distancing rules and other safety precautions might add layers of tedium to a formerly relaxed affair.

There are plenty of challenges—both anticipated and unforeseen—that will have to be navigated nightly in order to safely pull off something that used to feel routine.

When they are finally allowed to open their gates again, teams are going to have to plan in place. On May 8, the Charleston RiverDogs released a public version of theirs. A much longer, more detailed internal version exists, but the five-page PDF the team put out clearly spells out its line of thinking at the moment.

The release was months in the making.

“This started on our first organization-wide call, a day or two after the country shut down,” said Jeff Goldklang, the president of the Goldklang Group, which operates the RiverDogs, the New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley Renegades, the independent American Association’s St. Paul Saints and the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League.

“We had one overriding question, and that was: What do we need to do to prepare ourselves to operate, both safely and effectively, once we’re allowed to open up the business?”

The answer was: A lot. From cashless transactions, to socially distanced seating manifests, to a host of regulations surrounding food and beverages, the new game-day operation is going to take a lot of work to pull off once enough restrictions are lifted and teams can begin welcoming fans back to ballparks.

Figuring out just how many fans a ballpark can safely hold will be among the biggest challenges. Like the RiverDogs, the Saints also released a post-coronavirus plan last week. Unlike the RiverDogs, however, their version included a small piece of a projected seating manifest.

As would be expected, adhering to social-distance requirements will drastically reduce the amount of people who can safely sit in each section.

“We discussed every scenario. Six feet apart, let’s make sure that everyone who’s not with a family is six feet apart. But we also anticipated the fact that, even though you’re not sitting six feet apart, a ballpark or any athletic venue, if you’re in the middle of a row and you have to go to the restroom or you want to get out to go purchase a concession item, you’re going to be walking by many people,” Goldklang said.

“So what we did is, we took an overview of the ballpark and tried to minimize as many touch-points, as many points where individuals would be in direct line of movement with anyone else who’s outside of their family.”

Everything, of course, is subject to change. Our knowledge of the virus and its behavior changes daily. As we learn more about the ways it does and does not spread, plans will be adjusted and readjusted until something close to ideal is found.

“What we released was a prototype. Effectively, if we were to open based on current guidelines, this is how we envision it. So, that manifest that you saw, was effectively, ‘This is what we’re thinking about,’” Goldklang said, before noting that there are still plenty of hurdles ahead before reaching a final version.

“We haven’t begun to place fans in those seats or re-seat season-ticket holders or anything like that, because, at the point we are given the green light, we would immediately react to whatever guidelines are in place, share all of that information—we’ve already shared it with our health departments and our local partners—and what they’ve told us to this point is: This is a great start.”

As seen by the dueling proposals from MLB and its Players’ Union over the past week, any hints of baseball coming back in 2020 draw strong opinions. Some fans want the game back as soon as possible, while others are willing to wait until the virus is under enough control that everything can be done as safely as possible.

By releasing their plans when they did, Goldklang’s teams were the first to get their fans’ opinions on the matter.

“(The reaction) was overwhelmingly positive. There was some hope there,” Goldklang said. “There was a lot of feedback that said, ‘Thank you for thinking about us,’ and that you’re not simply concerned with opening those gates, throwing us into the ballpark and taking our dollars. You’re concerned with making sure that we come and leave safely.”

Nobody knows when or if baseball will be played in North America in 2020. The outlook in the major and minor leagues is constantly changing, but if the situation improves enough that the game can resume at some point this summer, teams have to be ready.

Ultimately, that was why the RiverDogs chose to release their plans when they did.

“At that time we obviously had no idea when we would be opening. At this point, we’ve realized it’s OK to tell people ‘I don’t know,’ Goldklang said. “However, because of our operations, we felt it was prudent. And the only actionable item—was to prepare to open up for 2020.”

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