With the lifting of the state mask mandate, Saturday marks a new normal for the Sounders and Seattle Sports

TUKWILA – Following local health and safety protocols, starting Saturday, fans will no longer be required to wear masks for outdoor and indoor settings during matches at Lumen Field for Sounders.

A caveat is that those seated at pitch level and club seats at pitch level will still need to wear masks and provide proof of vaccination due to the proximity of players. Governor Jay Inslee last month announced plans to lift Washington’s COVID-19 mask mandate starting March 12.

Seattle (0-2) hosts the Los Angeles Galaxy (2-0) on Saturday. The date is also exactly two years from the shutdown of MLS – and the sports world – in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. The MLS suspension was initially for 30 days and eventually lasted four months, with the Sounders returning to action in July 2020 with an MLS tournament played in a bubble in Orlando.

But, with COVID cases and deaths down sharply from their January peaks, the country is beginning to transition to a new normal with fewer masks and fewer mandates. Among those embracing the change is Sounders goaltender Stefan Frei, who says, “It will be nice to see people’s faces.”

Going outside without a mask at Lumen was optional from February and showing proof of vaccination on entry ended this month.

“It’s been a tough time for everyone, and I’m still a little surprised that people are so upset that we had to wear masks,” Frei continued. “I’m lucky I haven’t lost anyone during this pandemic and I haven’t even been infected…. I was hoping that finding a common enemy would bring humans closer together and what better than a pandemic that no one should really bond with. We struggled a bit with that, so a little personal reflection for everyone would be nice.

MLS players will still mask up in certain situations, but if an organization is fully vaccinated – which Sounders are – testing for the virus is no longer necessary. The team would have to resume testing if anyone had symptoms that turned out to be COVID or was in contact with someone who had contracted the virus.

CONCACAF still requires testing as the continental region continues efforts to stem hospitalizations and deaths. The Sounders’ travel delegation will test for COVID ahead of Thursday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Club Leon in Mexico.

Pollster forward Fredy Montero partially owns Santo Coffee Co. in the Roosevelt neighborhood which opened in August 2019. He said the small business is just beginning to regain its footing after an initial closure in 2020 and will follow the local rules regarding masks.

Inslee noted that private companies and local governments can require masks if they wish.

“It’s one more step towards normalcy,” Montero said. “It was a big success for small businesses, which had to adapt to 30%, then 40% and 50% occupancy. Those times are behind us and now we are excited to be back to normal.

Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer joined Peter Tomozawa, the club’s chairman of business operations, and Garth Lagerwey, football president and chief executive, in penning an upbeat open letter to fans last month. The leadership group wrote that this season “may be our most special year yet, and we invite you to be a part of every step.”

“It’s not something we’ve done (in the past few years),” Lagerwey said of the letter. “It was a real encouragement because hopefully we’re finally getting to the end phase of the pandemic, we really want to get everyone back into the stadium. … Naturally people have had really legitimate reasons not to Hopefully we are now at a point where we can get a full building again.

The Sounders played the entire 2020 home roster behind closed doors and gradually welcomed fans last season, starting with a socially distanced 7,000 in the roughly 68,000-seat stadium for the home opener. Attendance evolved into “vaccinated sections” and finally full capacity in July 2021.

But the Sounders have not returned to their pre-COVID attendance numbers. The team averaged 40,247 during the 2019 MLS regular season. The club drew a record 69,274 for their MLS Cup championship win at Lumen in December 2019.

An average of 29,000 people have attended the Sounders’ last three games at Lumen Field, including two CCL games against FC Motagua and Leon.

In addition to security, performance could be an issue. The Sounders scored a stunning eight goals in the CCL’s two wins at Lumen. Seattle lost its MLS opener to Nashville SC 1-0 in February.

Rave Green lost a 1-0 decision to Real Salt Lake in a snowfall last week in Utah, pushing the Sounders’ winless streak to nine games in MLS, including the playoff loss of last year against RSL.

There’s hope that Frei’s advice to “have to mask your disdain a little more when you’re not too happy” won’t apply to Sounders matches now that masks are optional at Lumen.

“This country will have to come out of this (restrictions) because COVID is here to stay,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Am I a little more careful inside?” Yes. We can’t afford to have a bunch of COVID cases here. So common sense, safety, all of those things will help this country open up and help get more people into the stands safely. That’s what we all aim for, right? »

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