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As fans pack into Globe Life Field, Texas Rangers aren’t strongly enforcing their own mask policy

Fans at Globe Life Field do "The Wave" between innings of a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, April 17, 2021.  (Associated Press)
By Sam Blum Dallas Morning News

Baseball fans at Globe Life Field have largely not worn masks this season, and the Rangers realize it.

The decision to open at 100% went against precedent set nationwide for restricting capacity at sporting events. College sports, pro golf and tennis tournaments and other pro teams – including all other 29 MLB teams – have limited capacity in some way.

The Rangers, though, assured the public that every measure would be taken to protect the safety of their fans and workers. They committed to having socially distanced sections after opening day, hand sanitizing stations and, most importantly, the mandatory requirement of masks when not actively eating or drinking.

Short of staying away from these largely attended events, which attract tens of thousands of people, experts say mask wearing is the best way to protect people from the spread of COVID-19.

But masks have been largely absent at Globe Life Field at Rangers games through the first two home series of the season. And Rangers officials know it.

“What weight do we give the customers wanting to be there?” asked Rob Matwick, the Rangers executive vice president of business operations. “We’re not forcing anyone to come to the games. I mean, people are making the decisions of their own free will.

“The person choosing to not wear the mask is the person putting themselves at risk.”

The CDC says otherwise.

Mask enforcement

When you wear a mask, you protect others as well as yourself, according to the first line of the CDC’s mask guidance. Choosing to not wear a mask puts others at risk, both in one’s immediate surroundings and the larger community.

Matwick, the only Rangers official made available by the club to speak about the topic, was pressed on the team’s concern about the virus spreading to those fans in the Rangers ballpark, and then those people bringing COVID back to their communities and families.

“Of course,” Matwick said. “Of course it could. But it may not, too.”

Erin Carlson, director of graduate public health programs at the University of Texas at Arlington, spoke to The Dallas Morning News before opening day about Rangers games possibly causing spread in the community. She assessed the risk of individuals attending games.

“If you have been fully vaccinated and you are concerned only about the risk to yourself, then go to the game and enjoy it. Live again,” Carlson said. “But if you have others in your life who have not been vaccinated, then that’s where we still need to be very vigilant.”

The Rangers are hardly the only event to have trouble enforcing masks, and it’s certainly not specific to MLB, which declined to comment for this story. The league has allowed teams to operate within the bounds of local health regulations. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removed the mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions in the state on March 10.

But the Rangers are the only professional team in North America to have opened its doors to 100% capacity, and despite a brand-new $1.2 billion stadium with a retractable roof, five of the Rangers’ nine home games this season have been played with the roof closed.

The Rangers hosted a sellout crowd of 38,232 people on April 5 in the home opener against the Blue Jays. The team has drawn more than 25,000 fans five times. Even when crowds dip closer to 50%, many fans are still clustered together.

The concern is that Rangers games – even with an open roof and thinned out crowd – become a superspreader event because of the lack of enforced masking. The U.S. and Texas have started to open up more over the past two months and cases, hospitalizations and deaths have gone down overall, but COVID still persists.

The level of COVID-19 community transmission in Tarrant County is listed as “Substantial” by the CDC. There was an uptick in the seven-day average for daily cases in the week after the home opener. On April 5, the number was a seven-day average of 118 cases, according to The New York Times, and went up to 271 on April 12. It is unclear if that has any connection to Rangers games.

Statewide as of Sunday, 47.14% of Texans over 16 years old have taken at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. In Tarrant County, though, the number is only 38.01%.

It’s unclear if any cases in Texas have been traced back to Rangers games, though sporting events have been known to be superspreaders. Multiple requests to a spokesperson for Tarrant County health director Vinny Taneja were not answered. However, he criticized the team after the opening day sellout brought more than 38,000 to Globe Life Field.

“That was hard, Taneja told KDFW-TV (Channel 4). “… COVID is still active. Flu is still active. Are we really wanting to ask for trouble? No, let’s not do that. Let’s be sensible about it … Invariably, somebody is gonna get COVID. That’s just a given.”

Three strikes

Other MLB teams are taking more proactive measures to prevent spread.

No other team has allowed more than 50% capacity, and the vast majority are at 25% or less. Some teams, like the Yankees, Mets and Giants, are requiring either a negative COVID-19 test, or proof of vaccination, to enter the ballpark.

The Rangers don’t require either. And while mask-wearing is a proven spread-stopper, the Rangers haven’t strongly enforced the requirement to wear masks after entering the ballpark.

If people weren’t wearing masks, the team said, there would be a three-strike policy that would lead to further punishment. Matwick admitted that specific policy was difficult to enforce, even acknowledging they really couldn’t use it.

“We’ve referenced it,” Matwick said. “And like I said, if you go down and remind somebody, they comply.”

Ushers, Matwick said, have been given signage to hold that encourage mask use. Public address announcer Chuck Morgan makes several in-game announcements encouraging mask use. There’s also signage throughout the ballpark encouraging mask use.

Matwick also acknowledged the difference between the Rangers requiring a mask at the door for entry, and a “voluntary compliance” approach during the game.

“We’re requiring them to wear the mask in,” Matwick said. “We want them to wear it during the game. We’ll continue to reinforce it.”

The Rangers continue to sell tickets in five socially distanced sections in the upper deck of left field, but Matwick was unsure at what percentage capacity those tickets are being sold.

The risk for fans is further exacerbated when the game is played indoors. The Rangers have played five of nine home games inside. MLB recommended the Rangers keep the roof open when possible. The Rangers return for a seven-game homestand Monday against the Angels and Red Sox. Boston is one of the most popular teams in the country and usually attracts more fans than other teams.

On April 11, the Rangers kept the roof closed with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s. On April 17, it was again kept closed with temperatures in the high 50s-low 60s with no rain threat.

Matwick acknowledged it might have been a mistake to keep the roof closed for the April 11 game, but stated the April 17 game would have been cold for North Texas fans.

Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on viral transmission told the New York Times that she encourages a ‘two-out-of-three rule’.

“If you’re outdoors, you either need to be distanced or masked,” Marr said. “If you’re not outdoors, you need to be distanced and masked. This is how I’ve been living for the past year.”