Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is still figuring out its new normal.
In the spring, after the virus put all gatherings on hold—including basketball games—the league's top 22 teams headed to Disney World resorts to quarantine in what became widely known as the NBA bubble. There, they finished out the 2019-2020 season, with the Los Angeles Lakers taking home the championship in what will most likely always been known as professional basketball's longest (and strangest) season.
Today, as COVID cases continue to surge, sports organizations are still determining what's next, questioning whether to allow fans into their stadiums to enjoy a much-needed escape from reality. And while cities like L.A. and NYC are still shut down, my hometown of Tampa has been working to reopen its venues. And, being the absolute sports lover I am, I was thrilled to hear sports arenas would start having fans attend games.
Now, normally, that news wouldn't have made a difference here, since Tampa doesn't actually have an NBA team. But, in true 2020 fashion, nothing is normal. As a result of the pandemic, the U.S.-Canada border has been closed for non-essential travel, forcing the Toronto Raptors to move to Tampa for the 2020-2021 season. So, when my boyfriend asked me if I was interested in going to their season opener December 23, I immediately said yes—and bought a red sweater.
Of course, I knew this game wasn't going to be like any I had previously attended. This was deemed a socially distant event with incredibly reduced capacity.
Typically, when going to a game, I bring a small purse or something see-through. But for this game, absolutely no bags were allowed. There wouldn't be locker service either, so everything had to be left behind. (Unfortunately, I learned this after arriving, so I had to walk back home to drop off my purse.) I was told by a staffer that this was a new rule for all NBA games as security, keeping six feet of distance, will no longer be able to conduct pat downs and bag searches.
Next, before walking through the standard metal detectors, I verbally answered questions about my medical history: Had I traveled anywhere recently? Had I been exposed to anyone with COVID in the last 14 days? Had I been experiencing any coronavirus-like symptoms? Interestingly enough, however, there were no temperature checks.
When we finally got inside, the most noticeable difference was that the majority of the seats in every section were zip-tied down to prohibit people from sitting in them. Seats were only available to purchase in groups of two or four, with each section only have a handful of widely spread out seats open. Plus, every section had a staffer walking around holding a sign that reminded us to please keep masks on at all times. If you were to take a drink or have a snack, you were instructed to keep your mask on your face, moving it slightly over when needed.
These days, fans at any event, whether it be indoors or outdoors, can be risky. But, overall, I felt safe in the Amalie Arena. Everyone kept their distance and the staff members were consistently wiping down handrails and enforcing the mask policy.
While a packed stadium is what often makes professional sports so fun, I still felt a rush of excitement to watch from the stands instead of from my couch. Sure, my experience was definitely far from normal, but after a year like 2020, I'll take any opportunity to bask in the simple pleasures we once took for granted.