Both the Braves and Atlanta United will expand their seating capacities to pre-pandemic levels next month, the teams announced within a minute of one another Wednesday.
The Braves said Truist Park’s capacity will increase to 100% -- about 41,000 seats -- beginning with the May 7 game against the Philadelphia Phillies. And Atlanta United said it will increase Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s capacity to 100% of the typical soccer configuration in the two lower levels -- roughly 42,500 seats -- starting with the May 15 match against Montreal.
Both teams, which went to 50% capacities just last week, cited COVID-19 vaccines for their decisions to expand attendance limits again so soon.
“We have had great success welcoming our fans back safely to Truist Park,” Braves President and CEO Derek Schiller said in a statement. “Our outdoor environment (and) the demand from our season-ticket holders and fans to watch us play in person, plus safety measures which are in place, make it feel that now is the right time to get back to full capacity at Truist Park.”
AMB Sports and Entertainment, parent company of Atlanta United and the Falcons, said the Falcons also plan to be at full capacity for the start of the NFL season in the fall. Atlanta United and the Falcons intend to play with the stadium’s retractable roof open as often as possible amid the pandemic, an AMBSE spokeswoman said.
“We are excited to bring our fans back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” Steve Cannon, AMBSE’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Given the increased opportunity for Georgians to be vaccinated, the abundant health protocols we have in place at the stadium and the interest from our season-ticket members, we felt that now is the right time to reopen the stadium in full capacity. ... We will continue to follow the necessary precautions to give fans a safe and clean environment.”
Public health experts say that while outdoor sports, with fresh air constantly moving, provide better protection than indoor arenas, reopening any stadium to full capacity is particularly risky given the sheer number of people crowded together.
“The best thing for me to say about this announcement is it’s ill-considered, but it seems to be a very dangerous thing to do because we are on a downward trend and now is not the time to let up,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, an infectious disease expert at Georgia State University.
Rothenberg said he understands people, over a year into the pandemic, “are really sick of the disease, and just feel like ‘I am done with this,’” but he worries the return to full capacity will lead to an increase in cases and only delay getting the pandemic under control.
“I think it’s premature,” said Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State’s School of Public Health. “I think there will be a time when it will be OK, but we are not there yet. We are still battling the pandemic and trying to get people vaccinated and outrace the virus.”
Eriksen said his expectation would be “most people will not be wearing masks,” and he sees all sorts of opportunities for the virus to spread as people holler, cheer, eat and celebrate with fellow fans.
Schiller and Cannon were not available for comment beyond their prepared statements, according to the Braves and AMBSE, respectively. The organizations coordinated the timing of their announcements with one another.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp applauded the teams’ announcements, posting on Twitter: “Great to see the @Braves and @ATLUTD stadiums fully opening soon!”
John Shafer, a Braves season-ticket holder since 1991, was excited to hear the news.
“It’s going to be great to be able to once again go to the ballpark and have it be like the ballpark used to be,” Shafer said. “I don’t know what other words to use other than ‘awesome’ and ‘exciting.’ It’s just been a long time coming.
“I guess, more than anything, beyond baseball, this gives me hope that we are really on track to some form of normalcy in our lives.”
But Atlanta United season-ticket holder Robyn Saghini expressed reservations, saying she won’t attend May games and will reevaluate in June.
“I just don’t feel like this city/state is at the point where this is OK yet,” she wrote in an email.
Saghini attended Atlanta United’s 50%-capacity home opener Saturday, “and despite being fully vaccinated myself and wearing two masks, I was still uncomfortable and angry,” she wrote. “So many people around me were crowding together, and either not wearing their masks properly or at all.”
The Hawks, who currently are allowing 3,000 fans per game at State Farm Arena, about 18% of full capacity, haven’t announced any change in that policy. They have said the attendance limit could be increased for the playoffs.
The Braves became the second MLB team to announce it’ll open to 100% capacity. The Texas Rangers were the first, doing so at the start of the season.
“It’s going to be great,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. Having some fans in attendance for the team’s first two homestands “has meant the world, I think, to everybody here, because it’s been like we remembered when we had fans,” he said. “I think (increasing to 100% capacity) is just going to be another positive step in the right direction.”
The Braves limited Truist Park’s seating capacity to 33% (about 13,500 fans) for this season’s first homestand April 9-15 before increasing to 50% (about 20,500 fans) for the current homestand, which started Friday. The Braves drew announced crowds of 19,258 on Friday, 20,693 for a Sunday doubleheader, 17,956 on Monday and 17,603 on Tuesday. Last year, the Braves played a shortened regular season with no fans in attendance.
Atlanta United limited attendance to 50% in the lower two levels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium (about 21,250 fans) for its first two matches there this season. The team drew announced crowds of 20,335 on Saturday and 17,533 on Tuesday.
While Atlanta United will use only the stadium’s two lower levels for most matches this year, as is the team’s typical practice, it is targeting two matches later in the season to utilize all three levels of the 71,000-plus-seat stadium: July 24 against the Columbus Crew and Aug. 15 against LAFC.
About a third of Georgia residents have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and one in four are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Public Health.
-- Staff writers Helena Oliviero, Doug Roberson and Gabriel Burns contributed to this article.
The Braves and Atlanta United announced Wednesday they will open their respective stadiums to 100% capacity in May. The attendance allowed so far this season:
Braves at Truist Park
First homestand (April 9-15): 33% - 13,500
Second homestand (April 23-29): 50% - 20,500
Third homestand (May 7-13): 100% - 41,000
Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
(Two lower bowls)
Home opener (April 24): 50% - 21,250
Second home game (April 27) – 50% - 21,250
Third home game (May 15): 100% - 42,500