With safety measures, Hawks opening State Farm Arena at 8% fan capacity

A few fans arrive to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
A few fans arrive to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

With added safety measures in place, the Hawks will be re-opening State Farm Arena to fans, at 8% capacity, beginning with Tuesday’s home game against the Clippers.

That amounts to about 1,300 fans who will be permitted in the building.

Social distancing will be applied in all spaces, and masks will be mandatory. There will be contactless entry, contactless food/beverage and retail transactions and health surveys upon entry via the CLEAR app. The Hawks have beefed up their cleaning procedures, marked physical distancing guidelines on the floor, installed touchless hand sanitizer stations and restroom fixtures throughout the building, and will be distributing limited concessions and drinks differently, with all beverages packaged. Security screenings will also be contactless, and there will be restricted concourse gathering.

Officially, they’re calling these their “Safety Six” protocols: 1. Limited capacity and physical distancing 2. Mandatory face coverings 3. Contactless entry, screening, and transactions 4. Touchless hand sanitizer Stations and restroom fixtures 5. Robust cleaning and disinfecting procedures 6. Safe food and beverage distribution practices.

The Hawks had received feedback that there was interest from fans to attend games, if possible, so the process of figuring out how to do that as safely as possible began, per Brett Stefansson, executive vice president and general manager of State Farm Arena.

“We decided that because we were allowed to have fans, our feedback from a lot of our fan base was that they wanted to come to an event,” Stefansson said. “... How can we continue to stay connected with folks that do want to come out, that do feel OK about being in that environment, in the environment we feel comfortable in delivering, that we think is a safe environment.”

This decision isn’t revenue-motivated, per Stefansson, as the Hawks will lose money on operating with such a small amount of fans present.

The seats are mostly empty with the exception of a few guests while the Atlanta Hawks play their home opener against the Detroit Pistons Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
The seats are mostly empty with the exception of a few guests while the Atlanta Hawks play their home opener against the Detroit Pistons Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In deciding whether to allow fans in the arena, and what safety precautions to take if so, the Hawks consulted with their Sharecare sponsor and Emory, the team’s healthcare provider, in particular Sujit Suchindran, M.D., the team’s infectious disease consultant who will be on-call for recommendations on health guidelines throughout the season. Emory doctors also trained State Farm Arena’s part-time staff and basketball operations staff on information about COVID-19, through the lens of working events in an indoor space.

As of now, only season ticket holders will be eligible for seats, but that may change in the future if things with the virus improve, as vaccines continue to roll out, and capacity could potentially increase. The amount of people allowed in the building is subject to change as circumstances change, as are other safety precautions that can be ramped up or down.

“As we wrestled with it, we made sure that, No. 1, we had a really good plan and that safety was at the forefront of everything that we did,” Stefansson said. “The other piece of that was how do we continue to make sure that we maintain flexibility, flexibility in everything we do, whether that’s pulling back or hitting the accelerator, or changing directions, whatever that might be.”

Fans sitting in certain zones of the building located within 30 feet of the court will have to undergo rapid-response COVID-19 testing on-site before they’re granted access. While sitting in the stands, fans will be spaced out.

The NBA has deferred to local jurisdictions/guidelines to determine if teams can host fans in arenas. The league does mandate that teams receive third-party verification of their health standards, per Stenfansson, which the Hawks received through the WELL health-safety rating for facility operations and management, which overlooks operation policies, occupant engagement, maintenance protocols and emergency plans.

In creating their safety guidelines for the return of fans, the Hawks sought to learn from organizations that have already been through similar re-openings, including NFL teams and Delta, which gave the Hawks feedback on their plans.

So far this season, the Hawks have allowed in only a limited number of family and friends of staff as a test run of sorts, as event staff adapted to new protocols. They gradually have opened up more areas throughout the building. They were originally expecting to open at 10% capacity for the MLK Day game, but pushed that date back.

The Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves play in an MLK Day Unity game on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
The Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves play in an MLK Day Unity game on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“Our focus on this the entire time has been a crawl, walk, run mentality, so how can we slowly start to open the building, pressure test all the different areas, the amount of people that we’re having,” Stefansson said. “... We only opened up with a couple hundred friends and family so that we could figure out what our challenges were and what pivots we needed to make and how was it impacting not just the guest experience, but the employee experience, how can we tweak every aspect of it to make it as safe as possible.”

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