Five home games remain in the Vikings' 2020 season, and the team is still hoping to bring fans into U.S. Bank Stadium — if they can get the go-ahead from the governor.
The Vikings don't expect to put a capacity crowd of 67,200 in the purple seats, owing to pandemic restrictions. Given the team's 1-5 record, fans aren't exactly banging down the doors right now anyway.
But Vikings fans are nothing if not loyal, and some want to see them in person. So the team has spent months drawing up plans phasing in a safe return to fans in the stands, beginning with a smallish crowd of 3,300, or about 5% of the building's capacity.
To bring in fans, however, they first need a green light from Gov. Tim Walz by the middle of this week. The governor hasn't given any sign that he's ready to open the stadium doors, so the prospects aren't promising for those who want to watch the game from seats inside the $1.1 billion stadium.
Vikings COO Andrew Miller emphasized the organization isn't challenging the severity or difficulty of managing the pandemic. But he said he feels a commitment to the rabid loyalists who bleed purple every fall.
"We believe it's our responsibility to our fans to try to have them at games," Miller said. "It does create more energy for the players on the field."
Stadium managers said the building is ready to go. All that's needed is enough workers to accommodate fans, a hiring process that could take roughly two weeks. The Vikings said that would give them plenty of time to sell tickets for the next home game against the Detroit Lions, on Nov. 8.
If fans aren't allowed in for the next game, they're probably going to be shut out for the duration.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said: "As a high school football coach of 20 years, Gov. Walz is eager to get back in the stands. But as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Minnesota, we know that large gatherings continue to pose a threat to Minnesotans.
"The governor will continue working with health experts and leaders in business and labor to get Minnesota back to a place where we can safely gather in larger groups."
As the clock ticks down on the Vikings' season, COVID-19 cases are ticking up. On Friday, state health officials reported 2,297 cases, blowing out the previous high of 1,516 new cases on Oct. 10. On Monday, 1,632 new cases were reported in Minnesota.
From the outset of the pandemic, Walz has said that letting fans return to large indoor sports and concert venues would be among the final steps in the recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown.
The 4-year-old U.S. Bank Stadium qualifies as a large indoor venue, even when the five massive doors on the west facade are wide open.
The Vikings have a plan to make the building smaller by breaking it down into seven self-contained pods, each with its own concessions and restrooms.
Fans would be assigned to one pod, where they would remain for the game and outside of which they couldn't roam. Tickets would come with an assigned entry time and designated gate.
Across the NFL, teams have been allowed a range of attendance depending on a mix of local guidelines, size and type of stadiums.
On the high end, the Dallas Cowboys have allowed in nearly 22,000 fans, about a quarter of the capacity of gigantic AT&T Stadium. The Indianapolis Colts started with 2,500 fans and have raised that limit to 7,500. So far no COVID-19 outbreaks have been tied to attendance at NFL games, Miller said.
In recent games, the Vikings have tested potential protocols with the 250 friends and family they're allowed to let in. They sit in the lower southwestern corner of the stadium, barely making a dent visually or with their volume.
Team employees, stadium staffers and reporters also have followed protocols that include temperature screenings and health questionnaires before entering the stadium.
Masks have been required all season, and hand sanitizer stations are abundant. There are purple signs throughout the stadium on tables, doors and floors urging social distancing, masking and sanitizing.
If fans are allowed to return to U.S. Bank Stadium, they will find ushers monitoring their behavior and ready to wave warning signs at them reading "Mask up" and "Keep your distance."
J.P. Paul, the Vikings' vice president for guest relations, said the signs would be used as a gentle first reminder to fans violating protocols. But there wouldn't be tolerance for flouting the rules, he said.
"One thing we've heard loud and clear is the fans in the building want to know the team's enforcing … protocols," Paul said.
Even if fans are allowed to return, there will be no tailgating or pregame festivities on the outdoor plaza. "We want to get people in as safely and as quickly as possible," Miller said.
The Vikings have worked on the plans with ASM Global, the building's operator, which oversees venues globally and has developed its own plan — VenueShield — to protect fans.
John Drum, ASM's interim general manager for U.S. Bank Stadium, said the company's plan was developed with Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia and touches on all aspects of a stadium visit — environmental hygiene, workplace safety, customer journey, food safety and technology. They've got state-of-the-art electrostatic sprayers for cleaning surfaces.
The building's ability to cleanse the air goes far beyond opening the big glass doors. The stadium has a sophisticated HVAC system with AtmosAir, an ionization device designed to clear stadium air of exhaust from monster trucks and smoke from fireworks — but more recently touted for efficiency in eliminating the coronavirus.
After the Lions come to town, the Vikings play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 22, followed by the Carolina Panthers — with a resurgent Teddy Bridgewater — on Nov. 29, and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 6. The Chicago Bears arrive in town for the final home game on Dec. 20.
As to whether there would be fans willing to purchase tickets for a game in a largely empty stadium, Miller said: "I don't think we have any doubt about that."