Updated: Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he was easing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, which should let the Bulls have 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. “We are very happy with the governor’s decision,” said Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations. “We were currently at just over 700, so to be able to jump to 2,500 – 3,000 will really be beneficial to our business.”
By Nicole Kagan and Claire Kraemer
When the Durham Bulls open their season April 6, team officials hope that the state will allow them to fill their ballpark to 25% of its 10,000-seat capacity. But for now, COVID-19 rules permit just 7%.
In an interview with The 9th Street Journal and in a virtual town hall with fans, team officials said Tuesday they are taking special measures to assure fans’ safety for the Bulls’ first season since minor league baseball was shut down by the pandemic last year. And they hope state rules will soon permit more fans.
Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said an announcement about greater capacity could come as early as Wednesday.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this week that the stadium’s capacity would be determined by state guidelines in April, but that, “I think by that time we will be doing a lot better.”
He said he was hopeful that “they’ll be able to open with a decent amount of fans there.”
Chip Allen, the Bulls assistant general manager for sales, said the team has taken many precautions to keep fans safe. The ballpark has also gone cashless and ticket sales are now completely digital. The ticket takers that used to greet fans at the stadium’s entrances will be replaced by free-standing kiosks that allow fans to scan their tickets themselves.
The Bulls will play only five other teams to minimize travel and there will not be any playoffs or an all-star game.
Merchandise and concession stands will still be open for fans looking to buy a baseball cap or a footlong hot dog, but there will be more mobile ordering so fans don’t have to stand in line.
Even with these changes, the Bulls acknowledge that some fans may be uncomfortable returning to a stadium, particularly early in the season. So they’ve offered season ticket holders flexibility, allowing them to bypass the first couple months of the season in exchange for credits later on.
“Our long-term goal is to have our fans for life,” Allen said. “So we’ve got to do right by them now.”
The team is well-known for entertainment and fan contests on the field between innings. But given that fans are no longer allowed on the field, entertainment will be pre-recorded and fan contests will take place around the concourse.
Still, with games on the schedule and players on the field, team officials are eager for Bulls fans to return to the stadium.
“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Birling told fans in the town hall. “We can’t wait to get that first pitch.”
Photo above, Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull is ready for the new season (Team photo)