This weekend, the Phoenix Suns will become the 10th NBA team to welcome fans into the building when, on Feb. 7, they invite local healthcare workers to the arena to watch as the Suns take on the Celtics.
Starting the next night, Monday February 8, season-ticket holders will get their first chance to take in a game at the newly remodeled (but still unsponsored) Phoenix Suns Arena. Up to 1,500 fans will be allowed into games to start, in addition to suites which can be filled up to 25 percent of capacity.
Tickets go on sale Thursday.
The change comes as Arizona’s COVID-19 numbers take a dip, with the state’s rate of reproduction dwindling to 0.8 as of Wednesday, meaning the epidemic is shrinking here. At the same time, the Arizona Coyotes have been hosting nearly 3,000 fans per game in Glendale since the start of the NHL season, and as much as Arizona sports teams struggled financially during good economic times, they’re likely in fairly dire straits now with revenue cut dramatically.
However, an executive order signed by Gov. Doug Ducey last July — still in effect — states clearly that “even if appropriate physical distancing is possible, organized events of more than 50 people are prohibited.” The EO allows cities like Phoenix, where the Suns play, to grant special exceptions. The city seemingly did so for the Suns, in part because of their commitment to certification by the Global Biohazard Advisory Council, or GBAC, through its STAR accreditation. (For more on that, check out this story I wrote last summer for ASU’s GlobalSport Institute.)
Yet no matter how many accreditations the Suns pile up or what the data snapshot tells us, it is still dangerous to bring 1,500-plus people together right now. The CDC currently recommends skipping large gatherings unless they are outdoors, socially distant, and all attendees are masked the whole time. A basketball game checks only one of those boxes, as the Suns will indeed separate family pods of people (maximum four per pod), but of course the game is played inside and even if masking is enforced, just like at restaurants or movie theaters, people take them off to eat and drink.
This is why a bipartisan group of leaders from across the state recently asked that the Cactus League spring training slate be postponed, citing high transmission rates of the coronavirus. But, as with many still unsafe activities in this state and the country, spring training will likely move forward, as will highly attended Coyotes games and now Suns games as well.
To be clear, the Suns are starved for revenue, as indicated by two large rounds of layoffs in July and November of last year. And anyone who’s been to downtown Phoenix lately knows just how empty the city is. Bringing fans in will allow restaurants to bring in more money as well as other lesser-thought-of parts of the downtown economy like parking, security and arena staff.
At the same time, it’s hard to turn away from the inherent danger here, even for those who choose to return to work and get their wages back. Arizona Department of Health Services director, Dr. Cara Christ, recently said the reason Arizona’s COVID-19 numbers have fallen is because of a decrease in small gatherings that were happening around the holidays.
Replacing those with larger gatherings such as sporting events seems like it’s testing fate — as well as clear-cut science.
As much as the team and even the writers here at Bright Side want fans back in the building to see the new renovations, cheer on this new-look Suns squad and regain some camaraderie we’ve lost over the past year, the fact is the scientists and doctors leading our fight in this pandemic still believe it’s not safe yet. Money is clearly leading the way here, and that’s the last thing that should be dictating people’s safety.
The vaccine, testing and treatment efforts we’ve poured so much time and money into across the globe are close to ending this nightmare, but the reality is it’s not over yet. Fans can do what they’d like, and as long as we limit how we potentially spread the virus to others, it’s our choice how we spend our lives. What’s open is open. But any team (or municipality like Phoenix) that ignores the truth is being unsafe.