An eerie absence of energy and excitement settled in and around U.S. Bank Stadium and downtown Minneapolis on what should have been a rocking tailgating party before the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers border battle Sunday to open the NFL season.
Undeterred by the unusual circumstances, lifelong friends and self-described “Skoldiers” Sam Goetsch of St. Louis Park and Christian Canavati of St. Cloud kept their tradition alive, forming the lone pocket of pregame partying in a corner of the Commons park as they tossed cornhole bags with four friends and sipped bottles of Budweiser.
In a normal year, the two 24-year-olds, who grew up together in Alexandria, said they would arrive at 6:30 a.m. to get a tailgating spot in the lot behind the Crooked Pint on Washington Avenue. But tailgating was banned there and in the two lots north of the stadium, locations rented out by the Vikings in typical seasons.
“There’s nothing. We drove around for about an hour looking for it,” Canavati said of pregame festivities that usually transform the surface lots into friendly party zones with grills fired up at dawn, party tunes pumping and beer flowing.
On a dazzling 65-degree morning with a noon kickoff, the grassy park and paved plaza to the west of the stadium were mostly open, save for a few fluffy puppies, parents with babies in strollers and neighbors on coffee and grocery runs. The COVID-19 pandemic and state restrictions that came with it put a big wet blanket on not only the pregame activities but also the energy inside the 66,000-seat stadium, where fans are banned for at least the first two home games.
The young men from Alexandria were doing their part to bring the fun, saying they were headed to a brewery to watch the game that ended with a Vikings 43-34 loss.
“We come to every opener every year; we’ve been to every one since we were 5,” said Canavati, whose purple Vikings helmet matched the one on Goetsch’s head.
Inside the stadium, strict NFL limits on decibel levels in empty stadiums held the noise to an unrecognizable minimum — just a notch above the ambient hum of the HVAC system. A prerecorded Skol chant by a small group of fans broadcast on the big screens didn’t come close to the romping, stomping feeling brought by a full house of clapping fans.
The usually piercing gjallarhorn, sounding on third downs, was so quiet it was hard to discern. Even the introduction of the Vikings under the smoke-puffing dragon ship was neither loud nor dramatic enough to draw much notice.
The players felt it, too.
“It feels like you’re losing a game and it feels that way the whole game,” Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said about the atmosphere without any fans.
At downtown restaurants, business was decent in spots but nowhere near the lively gameday crowds that would be expected for a home game. By state order, the restaurants are restricted to 50% capacity indoors and banned from seating patrons at the bar.
Karen Gardenier, manager at Keys in the Foshay Tower, said not having bar seats on game days hits hard. “Game days are big booze days,” she said. “If a game’s at noon, we’d be busy by 9.”
Tables were still available at that time Sunday. The story was the same up the block at the 8th Street Grill, where manager Mike Stewart was hauling tables onto the sidewalk. Usually, when the Vikings play a home game, Stewart said the entire weekend is busy from Friday night through Sunday evening.
“We would do as much in sales in that weekend as two weeks in one of our slower months,” he said.
And the place would be busy filling breakfast orders by 9 a.m. But the tables were empty Sunday, with the first customer, Cleveland Browns fan Anthony Woods of St. Paul, walking up and asking permission to enter.
Down near the stadium and the park, Alex and Kiirsten Conzemius put on their Vikings jerseys and drove in from Edina to check out the scene with their 1-year-old, Albert. “We thought maybe there would be something going on, but not so much,” Kiirsten Conzemius said.
Across the street, Rob Poirier, 27, who lives downtown, was out with his golden retriever puppy Maisie for similar reasons. The Wausau native and his pup were both wearing green Packers jerseys.
“We thought we’d walk around the stadium to see if there’s a vibe or anything,” he said. He didn’t find one and was headed home to his apartment. “I’m just glad we have football,” he said. “To watch it on TV is better than nothing.”