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Attending a Chiefs Game During Pandemic Feels Surprisingly Safe

Still, A Muted Experience

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Above image credit: Arrowhead Stadium at kickoff Week 4 against the Patriots. (Clarence Dennis)

If you’re looking for an ideal time to doom scroll headlines, the NFL’s daily COVID-19 test results typically drop the moment East Coast sports reporters roll out of bed.

On Monday morning about 5 a.m., I squinted at the following notification: “No positive tests reported. Patriots en route to Kansas City.”

Game on.

We pulled into the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium about 4 p.m. — two hours until kickoff — but by all appearances you wouldn’t know a pitched battle with a familiar AFC foe was so close.

Sans a global pandemic, gamedays at the Truman Sport Complex parking lot look like an establishing shot out of “Game of Thrones.” Smoke rises above the sea of tents and dissipates past waving flags — beacons for the passionate masses, fueled by barbecue and booze.

That wasn’t the case on Monday night. Instead, I steered my Honda Civic diagonally across an immense amount of pavement to the front row of Lot F.

“Woah, we never park this close,” someone noted from the backseat.

A mostly empty parking lot is marked with ticketed section-specific zones to ensure social distancing at Arrowhead Stadium.
A mostly empty parking lot is marked with ticketed section-specific zones to ensure social distancing at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Ushered into what looked like an extra-wide parking spot, presumably to maintain social distancing between tailgaters, our party of four laid out a heavy spread of Gates Bar-B-Q and cracked open a few beers.

That’s when the golf cart guy pulled up.

“You’re going to have to move your cars,” the Chiefs employee said to our group and a neighboring vehicle.

“You’re supposed to be like this,” he said, using hand gestures. “Not like this.

The fellow Chiefs fan and I stood listening patiently, trying to understand what golf cart guy wanted us to do. After about 30 seconds of doing his best to shout convoluted instructions from behind his mask and over nearby classic rock, we got it figured out.

Now parked in a checkerboard fashion, I stepped out of the car. 

“That was one hell of a drinking game,” our neighbor said before shutting his door. 

Tailgating in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot.
Tailgating in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. Cars are parked to promote social distancing between groups. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Golf cart guy was just doing his part to enforce NFL rules during the global pandemic. And putting the restrictor plate on parking lot parties is just one small part of what teams across the league are doing to make football work in — wait for it — the new normal.

Although Monday night’s game against the Patriots was Kansas City’s second home game of the pandemic, this one felt like “The COVID Game.”

Kickoff came a day late, as New England, Kansas City, and almost certainly the NFL held their collective breath awaiting team test results. The game hung in the balance following Saturday’s positive results from Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, in addition to Chiefs scout team quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.

Despite the potential risk of positive tests days after exposure (the Tennessee Titans have seen 23 positive tests roll in since Sept. 24) the Chiefs’ high-profile Week 4 game pressed on.

The Chiefs are one out of just a handful of NFL clubs allowing a limited number of fans to attend games. Walking into Arrowhead on Monday, personal expectations were somewhere between “How much are they forcing this?” and “I’m sure it will be OK.”

Thrilled to see the defending champs, the league’s best quarterback and to feel some sense of normalcy with friends, I assumed the risk of attending the game just as I have to occasionally sit on the patio at a restaurant or attend a half-outdoor wedding reception (always wearing a mask).

Put simply, and to my surprise, the game felt far safer than what I imagined a gathering of that magnitude — about 16,000 fans — would feel like.

How is that possible?

For starters, 16,000 people in a 71,000 seat stadium looks like this:

Arrowhead Stadium's limited capacity crowd at kickoff is about 16,000.
Arrowhead Stadium’s limited capacity crowd at kickoff is about 16,000. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Way more space between seated fans than I anticipated was one thing, but the zip-tied shut unoccupied seats ensured the spatial safety net would hold. (I do, however, feel for the person and who fastened the seats and the back pain that followed.)

In addition to zip-tied vacant seats, in-stadium measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (off the field) included frequent messaging on the video boards and no roaming vendors. Chiefs staff members made rounds holding signs to remind fans to wear masks.

While in the stands, I saw only one non-mask wearer near our section. He was promptly instructed to strap one on.

Each fan received a complimentary mask at the gate.
Each fan received a complimentary mask at the gate. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

As a Kansas City sports fan who has been fortunate enough to be in the house for Royals, Sporting KC and Chiefs postseason action, plus plenty of Jayhawk hoops in Allen Fieldhouse, I’ve grown to love the crowd as much as the game.

That being said, the normally raucous, borderline dangerous third level at Arrowhead was absolutely subdued. Especially for a game against the Patriots.

The occasional blurt from the crowd apparently sounded alright from the field, but that just wasn’t the same. Not for Kansas City. 

Among other changes at the stadium, the franchise is grappling with the cultural appropriation of Native American culture following its first Super Bowl title in 50 years.

It is worth noting that “The Chop” seemed significantly more quiet — even for the limited capacity crowd. A PA announcement before the “Drum Honoree” led “The Chop” detailed the cultural importance of the drum in regards to Native American heritage.

Unused seats are zip-tied closed.
Unused seats are zip-tied closed. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

The Chiefs, of course, won the game, improving to a 4-0 start for the fourth-consecutive season. After a slow first half, “air high-fives” were flying between distanced groups of fans in our section.

Other highlights include incredibly short lines for restrooms and concessions, a row of footrest seats in front of us and what honestly felt like an exclusive look at our talented football team.

You know those times when you forget there’s a global pandemic happening?

Somehow, walking out of Arrowhead Stadium with some of the most passionate fans on earth became one of those times.

Back in the parking lot, years of “letting the traffic clear out” training kicked in, which would probably make dads across the world proud.

We cracked open the now-soggy leftover fries and onion rings.

“Jeez, Tyreek Hill is so fast in person,” I reminded our group, although we all saw him flying around the field just minutes before.

The inside of a portable restroom door. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Then came a new golf cart guy.

“Hey guys, no hanging out in the parking lot after the game,” he said.

“NFL COVID policy.”

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