The Minnesota Twins are unveiling new plans and partners aimed at preparing the ballpark for a big comeback and persuading state officials that they will be ready to host fans for the 2021 season.
The team submitted to the state detailed plans of its attempt to keep fans safe and virus-free during games at Target Field. The plan would allow roughly 25%, about 10,000 fans, into the ballpark for each game. The team hopes those numbers could increase throughout the season as more Minnesotans get vaccinated.
Gov. Tim Walz will have the final word on the size of the crowds, and he must balance fans' desire for normalcy against public health concerns as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps its grip on the state. He told Minnesotans in December that a winter shutdown of indoor restaurant and bar service, along with other restrictions for indoor gatherings, would lead to a spring reopening as the Twins' bats were cracking. He has spoken with near certainty that he and his brother-in-law would be among fans at Target Field in 2021.
But he is not ready to commit to the fan lineup for the home opener April 8.
"Governor Walz is eager to get back to Target Field," said spokesman Teddy Tschann. "If Minnesotans continue to work hard to keep the virus under control while vaccinations ramp up, we're optimistic we can get fans back in the stands in some capacity this season."
Tschann said the administration will remain in close contact with the team in the weeks ahead.
Last year offered a grim experience for fans who were forced to huddle outside Target Field looking in for the home opener, postponed until late July due to the virus outbreak. The ballpark was locked down to all but essential employees for the rest of the season.
The Twins are gathering in Fort Myers, Fla., to begin preseason play at their home in Hammond Stadium, where they are hosting the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. The team's vice president for operations, Matt Hoy, is overseeing preparations to allow about 2,400 fans into the facility, which normally accommodates 8,730.
"Our example down here will hopefully show what we're capable of doing," Hoy said in an interview from Fort Myers.
At the Florida park, fans will prepay for parking and use packets instead of pumps for condiments. All drinks will be covered up. Unused seats will be tied into the upright position so fans don't use them or have to touch them to navigate the rows.
Plans for games at Target Field include selling tickets in packages of two and four with groups at least 6 feet from others. Tickets can go unused, but groups can't combine and sit together.
Masks would be required except when eating and drinking. Unused seats would be tied up to ensure safe social distancing.
"We're trying to find an experience that would be safe for all," Hoy said.
On Monday the team announced a new partnership with Venuetize, an app that will allow contactless ordering and payment of concessions and goods at Target Field.
Combined with the digital ticket delivery of Major League Baseball's Ballpark app, Venuetize will allow for a touchless trip through the gates of Target Field, the concessions stands and team store.
The Twins also announced a partnership with Maplewood-based 3M, which will provide cleaning, hygiene and disinfecting supplies to help with health and safety protocols at the ballpark. The new partners also are looking at ways to keep fans virus-free as they move around the park.
3M's senior vice president for corporate affairs, Denise Rutherford, noted that 3M not only manufactures face masks and a massive array of cleaning products but is experienced in safely working through the pandemic with roughly half its 93,000-employee global workforce in factories.
"Our manufacturing operations around the world were deemed essential workers," she said. "We've had people at work throughout this pandemic."
The lessons learned with cleaning and how to safely move large numbers of people around factories can be transferred to Target Field, she said, adding that their staff is advising cleaning crews on protocols. 3M also created a special baseball-oriented graphic for the ballpark designed to reassure fans about the behind-the-scenes work.
From the beginning of the pandemic almost a year ago, Walz has said big events in ballparks and stadiums would be among the last activities to return to normal.
The Minnesota Vikings spent months on plans to bring fans into U.S. Bank Stadium, devising a pod system that would have used designated entrances, concessionaires and restrooms. But they never got the chance.
The team, which usually attracts more than 700,000 paying fans a year, was allowed just 700 over the entire season. The Vikings' home, however, has a roof and is an indoor venue. Target Field is open-air, which may help the Twins' cause.
Last August and September, the St. Paul Saints were allowed about 1,500 fans per game at CHS Field, an open-air park, which can seat 7,210 at capacity.
Fans will know soon enough if they can scout tickets for the Twins opener. Operations at the ballpark have been mostly mothballed since 2019, so Hoy said the team needs a month to be fan-ready, pull concessions equipment out of storage and hire staff. That means the Twins are hoping to get some word from the governor in two weeks.
Hoy doesn't want a repeat of last year when he would leave his left field office on game nights and feel the emptiness. "It was strange to walk out and have all the lights on and the white noise," he said, adding that even a couple of hundred fans — as the team was allowed toward the end of the season — made a difference.
As more Minnesotans get vaccinated and fans can return to Target Field, Hoy hopes they will find themselves not just cheering but cheered. "Hopefully, we can play some small part in pulling us out of this nose-dive," he said of the pandemic.