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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

It's hard not to be a fan of Gov. Cuomo's New York stadium re-opening plan

New York Yankees fans arrive to Game 3

New York Yankees fans arrive to Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Welcome back.

Not all of you. Not right away. Hopefully, that isn’t too, too far off.

But we’ll take the 10% for now, as granted Wednesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who finally snapped the padlocks on the gates of New York’s arenas and stadiums to allow fans through, starting on Feb. 23.

I know Cuomo likes to say he listens to the science in making every one of his pandemic-related decisions, but whatever calculus he uses to determine these exact percentages is never readily available. All along, we’ve been following our best educated guesses, based on ever-evolving data for a pandemic the world hadn’t seen in more than a century. Now Cuomo believes this also can be done, for arenas/stadiums with a capacity over 10,000, by relying on PCR (nasal swab) tests, masks and social distancing.

"This hits the balance of safe reopening," Cuomo said Wednesday.

Fingers crossed, I’m cautiously optimistic we’re ready for this next step, because it feels like we desperately need to take a few more in the forward direction. By the time Feb. 23 rolls around -- we’re not counting the Bills playoff game attended by 6,700 -- it will have been 349 days since a ticket-buying fan was actually on-site somewhere in the metropolitan area, dating to the March 12 Big East Tournament matchup between St. John’s and Creighton at Madison Square Garden.

That game, which feels like a decade ago, was abruptly halted at halftime due to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 concerns. Our world has never been the same since.

Fans will bring some of that normal back with them. And this goes way beyond sports. Our psyche needs repairing after nearly a year on the injured list. Just return to us some of those happy sights and sounds again. Let the arenas help provide a blueprint to get the smaller, cozier venues up and running, too -- like Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the Met or your neighborhood bowling alley.

Can we further refine the testing process to make it an even quicker, more reliable turnaround than a few hours or days? (The 15-minute rapid test still has its skeptics). Will the vaccination rate accelerate to the point where people don’t have to be skittish about pulling down their mask for a bite of hot dog or sip of beer? Going by my own informal Twitter poll, it sounds like most fans will be sprinting back into ballparks, but mindful of a continuing emphasis on safety.

Of course, franchises are craving that gate revenue again. They’re starving for it. When a team like the Yankees had to flush roughly $450 million last summer due to playing only 30 games in their empty cash register, um, ballpark, the financial hit is devastating, across the board, right down to the vendors, ushers and parking lot attendants.

They’re not going to get whole with just a few thousand fans in the building. At the start, this is mostly symbolic, another reason to be hopeful, like the plunge in infection rates after the holiday surges. A year ago, as COVID-19 was gutting New York City and steadily gaining momentum nationwide, I was adamant about slamming on the brakes. Never did I think playing sports would be possible, right up until tip-off inside the NBA bubble and the first pitch of MLB’s 60-game season.

The experiments did not go smoothly. Baseball had an especially tough time, trying to play games on a daily basis while traveling, and a handful of teams were ravaged by outbreaks. At times, the NFL looked even worse as teams plowed through the season, head down, trying to dodge covid-positives like would-be tacklers.

Incredibly, each of the four major pro sports crowned champions during the pandemic, with the NBA and NHL well into another season already. Plenty of teams already have allowed fans inside arenas to watch -- the Super Bowl had over 25,000 people in attendance -- but New York has been one of the stricter states. After what we endured in 2020, there’s good reason for that.

But now the data is suggesting otherwise, and this region could use something more to cheer about. I’m bullish on the recovery and the urgency for a wider re-opening -- albeit in a smart, safe fashion -- is impossible to ignore. Cuomo may be starting out at 10% capacity for the re-introduction of fans, but baseball still has another six weeks before the Yankees open up April 1 in the Bronx. With increased vaccinations, and perhaps a little luck, it’s always possible that percentage could be bumped up a little higher by first pitch. The Mets aren’t back at Citi Field until April 8.

"Governor Cuomo’s announcement today is an encouraging first step," the Yankees said Wednesday in a statement.

More like jumping for joy. We all were promised another slice of our regular lives back Wednesday with Cuomo’s announcement. And that’s a priceless feeling, no matter what the ticket costs.

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