Smaller crowd for Seattle’s 1st major event since outbreak

Smaller crowd for Seattle’s 1st major event since outbreak
A man makes use of a hand-sanitizing station at CenturyLink Field prior to an MLS soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Seattle. Major North American professional sports leagues are talking to health officials and informing teams about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (Ted S. Warren/AP)

SEATTLE — Four months ago, Occidental Park, a couple of blocks north of CenturyLink Field, was crammed with thousands of Seattle Sounders fans clad in green and blue marching to the stadium. They sang, they set off smoke bombs and a few hours later celebrated the Sounders winning their second MLS Cup title.

On Saturday night the same march took place with many of the same fans wearing green and blue. Except instead of a few thousand, or even 1,000, there were just a couple hundred making the walk to the stadium.

Clearly, Seattle becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States made a dent on the first major sporting event in the city since the region saw a major rise in the number of diagnosed cases and deaths.

Content Continues Below

The crowd that did show up would have been the envy of many other MLS markets. But for Seattle, it was noticeably different.

“Have a safe match. I don’t think there will be much of a line as you enter the stadium so enjoy that,” said the host of the pregame “March to the Match” as he signed off.

The Sounders typically don’t have any problems drawing between 35,000 and 40,000 for their home MLS matches at CenturyLink Field. But many fans responded to the outbreak by being absent for Saturday’s match against the Columbus Crew.

Sections of blue seats normally filled with singing, chanting fans where left vacant. Health officials in Seattle had earlier in the week had not recommended rescheduling sporting events, but it was clear a large chunk of Sounders fans were not taking a chance.

It was a stark contrast from last Sunday, before the number of confirmed cases climbed, when more than 40,000 showed up for Seattle’s season opener against Chicago to celebrate the MLS Cup title won last November.

But the whole week was different for all sports teams in the area, who answered as many questions about their preventative measures toward the coronavirus as anything happening on the field or court.

“This is a real situation,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said this week. “The club obviously keeps me updated and the decisions that the club makes at the higher levels are above my pay grade. I go along with it, because it’s a serious deal.”

Earlier Saturday, officials in Washington state raised the death toll from the coronavirus to 16. The Washington state Department of Health announced the two additional deaths and said the number of people diagnosed with the virus has risen to 102. At least 10 of those who died had been linked to a nursing home in the Seattle area.

The Sounders match was the culmination of the odd week for the local teams. Seattle University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams both had games cancelled. Seattle’s men were scheduled to host Chicago State and Missouri-Kansas City, but both schools announced they would not travel to Seattle for games.

Washington men’s and women’s basketball teams both competed away from home. The Seattle Mariners continued spring training in Arizona with rising concerns about whether they should play their opening homestand beginning March 26.

While there were a couple of cancellations, most events went off without delay or restrictions. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association held boys and girls state basketball tournaments all week in three locations around the state.

Elliott Feldman was one of the Sounders fans that didn’t change plans and showed up on Saturday night. The 36-year-old physical therapist knew it was going to be a different type of night when he was able to unexpectedly find parking across the street from the restaurant where had dinner with his wife before the match.

Feldman said concerns about the outbreak were in the back of his mind.

“Should I go? Should I not go?” Feldman said. “And with all the communications it sort of makes it seem like I shouldn’t. But in all likelihood it’s probably not as prevalent.”

Ellie Somers, Feldman’s wife, said she was surprised even as late as Saturday morning the match was still on considering how many other events in the area had been postponed, or the move by the University of Washington and Seattle University to go to online classes for the near future.

“Personally I’m not very worried,” Somers said about the outbreak. “And I’m doing my best to protect others by washing my hands. ... I want to live life normally.”

In a statement released Thursday, the Sounders said they are “in continuous dialogue with regional health authorities and Major League Soccer, in addition to our network of medical experts.”

The team said it had also worked with First & Goal Inc., the operator of CenturyLink Field, to expand sanitation procedures and increased hand sanitizer stations throughout the venue. The team said it was also aware of a part-time stadium employee who worked a Seattle Dragons game on Feb. 22 and later tested positive for coronavirus. Health officials determined the risk from that employee was low.