Some fans cheer vaccination proof for sports events. Others demand refunds

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A team official even says the rule will increase attendance by reassuring fans that they’re safe to crowd together, shout and sing.

Ninety minutes south at Oregon State’s Reser Stadium in Corvallis, the same policy is getting a much different response. A new university rule requiring vaccination or a negative test to attend home football games, which begin Sept. 11, has so far prompted requests for refunds or future credit for about 250 football season tickets.

As for those happy with the extra measures, “I have not heard from anybody with that perspective,” OSU VP and athletic director Scott Barnes said.

Covid-19 screening requirements for sporting events are expanding nationwide to include proof of vaccination, as the highly contagious Delta variant fills ICU beds even in states such as Oregon, which largely staved off the worst infection rates earlier in the pandemic.

The small but growing list of teams requiring vaccination or a negative test includes the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers, NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and New Orleans Saints, and LSU, Boston College, Oregon and Oregon State in college football. Some teams are acting on their own initiative, while others are following changing rules from parent-company or public-health officials as infections rise.

Last Friday, tennis’s U.S. Open announced it would require proof of at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine for entrance to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y. Play in the tournament’s main draw started Monday.

“I think it’s where it’s going to go,” said Mike Golub, president of business for the Portland Timbers and Thorns, which announced their vax/test policy in mid-August. “We thought it was the right thing to do.”

As the new policies emerge, reactions to them often follow the politics of the area, with Democrats expressing greater confidence in Covid-19 vaccines than Republicans. In the three counties that encompass Democrat-controlled Portland, between 66% and 74% of the population is fully vaccinated, far above the national rate of 53%.

“We track carefully the number of our tickets that are sold on the secondary market,” Golub said of the Timbers and Thorns. “And we track carefully tickets that are not redeemed, meaning tickets that are not used.”

Both numbers, he said, are “materially higher” than they were before the pandemic. With the stricter Covid-19 entrance rules, Golub said with “a great deal of confidence,” that attendance at games will increase.

The total of 14,299 at the Thorns game against NJ/NY Gotham FC last Wednesday, when the policy took effect, was down about 2,000 from a home game earlier in August. A team spokesman attributed the drop to the game being on a Wednesday and said the vaccine requirement was “widely embraced by our fans.”

Oregon State and Oregon sit 90 minutes and two hours south of Portland, respectively, in adjacent counties. The schools’ athletic departments, which draw fans from the city as well as rural counties with lower-than-50% full vaccination rates, have seen mixed reactions to their recently announced mandates.

Preseason No. 11-ranked Oregon football’s season kicks off Saturday against Fresno State in Eugene, the first time in 22 months that Autzen Stadium has hosted Ducks football fans after last year’s pandemic-shortened, fan-less season.

Late last week, Oregon alumnus Stephanie Penrod said she was told the athletic department wasn’t issuing refunds, and that she was waiting to hear back on her request to defer her season tickets to next year.

An Oregon athletics spokesman said feedback from fans on the vaccination policy has been very positive and that officials talk to concerned customers about their options, including credits and refunds.

“One of the main reasons I’m upset is that I do feel like they are targeting unvaccinated people, that we might as well wear a scarlet letter,” said Penrod, a 43-year-old mother of three who lives in the Portland area. She said she feels like Covid-19 vaccines are unproven without long-term study.

Requiring a negative test of everyone rather than vaccination would be more fair, she said, but added that securing regular test results on short turnaround times is difficult.

“Most of the places are booked,” she said.

At Oregon State, the football season tickets lost so far over fan objections to the new restrictions represent less than 2% of the total of 13,900, said Barnes, the athletic director.

“The things that aren’t known, obviously, are: Has this announcement in some way slowed down new season-ticket purchases?” Barnes said. “What will happen to single-game — we rely also on single-game purchasers. Will this impact that? Yet to be determined.”

Nationwide last spring, a handful of teams set aside a few sections for vaccinated fans, starting with the NBA’s Miami Heat. The New York Knicks later said they would require fans to be vaccinated to attend the playoffs’ second round–then lost in the first round. The Knicks haven’t announced a policy for this season, which starts in October.

Teams enacting the rules strongly urge fans to arrive early and have their documentation ready: typically a vaccination card, a negative test result from within 48-72 hours of the event’s start time, or a photo of either one. The policies generally apply to people age 12 and older.

The rules in sports come as more big businesses require employees to be vaccinated and the world’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation Entertainment Inc., will require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test for entry to all of its owned venues and festivals starting in October.

Susie and Charlie Dugal, New Orleans Saints season-ticket holders for 23 years, said the Aug. 23 crowd for Jacksonville at the Caesars Superdome was smaller than usual for a preseason game. Game officials, enforcing a new city rule, required fans to show a negative test or proof of at least one Covid-19 shot, which fans could get outside the stadium.

The Dugals are both vaccinated and were happy to be back in the stadium that day. Both had Covid-19 a year ago, with Susie spending two months in the hospital. In the aftermath of that infection, she uses a small oxygen tank that Charlie usually carries.

“I just have to stay close to him,” she said.

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