The St. Paul Saints aren't just the Twins' new partners. They are their models, too.
Nearly 31,500 fans watched the Saints play baseball at CHS Field last summer, in socially distanced crowds of 1,500 per game. Their experience gives the Twins confidence that Target Field won't be empty during Twins games this season — perhaps not even on Opening Day.
"We believe we'll have fans in Target Field at some point [in 2021], and we're hopeful about getting there by April 8," the day the Twins are scheduled to host Seattle in the 2021 home opener, said team President Dave St. Peter. "In the next 10 days, we're going to be delivering to the governor's office and the [Minnesota] Department of Health our updated readiness plan for the 2021 season."
That plan draws upon the 21 games of experience the Saints absorbed last August and September, and also Major League Baseball's staging of the 2020 World Series and NL Championship Series before fans in Arlington, Texas. Both operated at greatly reduced capacity — just 1,500 fans at CHS Field, which can hold 7,210, and about 11,450 tickets sold per game at Globe Life Field, the Rangers' new home which normally seats 40,300.
"There has been a lot of sharing of best practices from those experiences, what worked and what didn't," St. Peter said. "We've also [consulted] with a number of NFL teams about what their experience was, around concessions, gameday policies, ingress and egress. We've received a lot of good information, a lot of good ideas."
And some good vibes about whether the Saints' experiment was worth it, too.
"It was different, but the energy level was incredible. Particularly last summer, after such a lengthy shutdown and quarantine at home, fans were so excited to be able to experience some normalcy," Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer said. "So despite the smaller crowd, the energy was there and was palpable."
The Twins conceivably could have received state approval for a similar plan late last summer, but MLB instituted a leaguewide moratorium on fans in ballparks, in an effort to limit any possible transmissions to the players. There is no such moratorium this season.
The Saints divided their ballpark into six separate "pods" with a capacity of 250 apiece. Each pod had its own entrance, concession areas, and restrooms, and circulation between pods was prohibited. Fans were required to wear masks unless they were eating or drinking, and small groups were separated in a checkerboard pattern, with empty seats behind and in front of each group, and a minimum of three empty seats on each side.
The team is aware of only four fans who tested positive after attending a Saints game, Sharrer said, or about .012 percent of their total attendance, and subsequent contact tracing found no evidence that they were infected at CHS Field.
"We felt very good about how it went," said Sharrer. "It wasn't ideal from a financial perspective, but just the ability to bring fans into the ballpark and have them safely enjoy the Saints' experience, we were grateful that the [state] gave us an opportunity to demonstrate it could be done safely."
The Saints' season ended before the number of COVID cases surged to new highs in November, however, and Gov. Tim Walz in response instituted new limitations on businesses that would likely have barred such gatherings. Those rules, which limit public gatherings to 250, remain in effect, but the Twins hope that the current trend — Friday's new cases totaled 1,145 in Minnesota, according to the Department of Health, about one-eighth of the state's record of 8,776 new cases reported on Nov. 9 — and their plans for social distancing at Target Field will allow those rules to be loosened before April.
"We're not tone-deaf to the [COVID-19] numbers in the state, and we've learned we can't take anything for granted," St. Peter said. "We believe things will improve to the point where we can safely open Target Field again, probably with a small subset of fans at first, and scalable based upon the course of the virus, vaccines and our ability to ensure the safety of our fan base. But we'll let the experts guide us on how and when."
Different experts in different places have different opinions and rules, however, as the Twins have discovered as they prepare to open their spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., in less than three weeks. Fans will not be allowed to circulate freely around the complex to watch workouts, as they did before the pandemic hit during camp last March.
"That's disappointing. That saddens us," St. Peter said. "That complex was built to be incredibly accessible to fans, which is normally a great thing. But in the era of COVID, it's a challenge for us."
But Lee County and the state of Florida are already willing to allow fans to attend outdoor events in limited numbers, and the Twins have been given the go-ahead to sell tickets — probably 2,000 at first — for exhibition games, starting with the Hammond Stadium opener against the Orioles on Feb. 28. They'll have an announcement about that in the next week or two, St. Peter said.
The Twins are also selling season tickets for the regular season, St. Peter said, though it's too soon to tell how many games, or how many fans, they will include. If done safely, more than just fans or teams will benefit, he said.
"In a bigger picture, we also see baseball as being a really important driver toward the reopening of downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul over the course of the spring and into the summer," St. Peter said. "We think baseball can be a really important catalyst toward returning some level of buzz and activity into our downtown, which is so desperately needed."