Western Nebraska Pioneers open their season Friday, June 26 against the Pierre Trappers. Owner Chuck Heeman said he is doing what he can to keep the fan experience as normal as possible.
Heeman was busy Thursday getting the stadium ready to help fans practice social distancing during the team’s opening night, including marking Xs every 6 feet at the front gate.
The first things fans will notice is the multiple entrances to the stadium.
“When we let people in the ballpark (in the past), we had two entrances,” Heeman said. “This year, we’ll have at least four. When everybody is in, we will close two of them and have our normal two. When we leave at night, we’ll open every gate. We have field gates all the way down (each side of the stadium). We’ll open the gates and let people out that way.”
Other than multiple gates, entrance to the game won’t change much. Tickets have barcodes that are scanned by Pioneers staff on either a fan’s smartphone or paper ticket. That procedure won’t change since it already didn’t involve contact between staff and fans. Pioneers staff taking tickets will also be wearing masks and gloves.
“I really encourage people to buy tickets online and use their mobile devices,” he said.
There will also have directional markings for people to follow as they walk through the stadium. Concessions will also have markings every 6 feet for fans to practice social distancing while waiting to order. Concession staff will also follow guidelines including wearing face masks and gloves.
“We’ll use the (safety measures) you would see at Runza or another restaurant,” Heeman said. “When you go to the convenience store, or you go to The Mixing Bowl, you’re seeing people spreading apart, and they are kind of used to that. I think, once people see the markings on the ground, then that isn’t going to be a problem.”
The Pioneers also have had to change the way they serve concessions, he said.
“You can’t go to a table and put your own ketchup on, anymore. We’ve got to give you a ketchup packet. We aren’t doing fountain drinks at this time. We’re only doing bottles because of the contact. There are things like that and the condiments that are especially to keep people safe.”
Fans who want to order food or beverages may do so from the comfort of their seats, he said.
“One of the things that we’re doing this year is using an app called Fan Food, where you can order food and drinks and come pick it up, instead of waiting in line for it.”
The Pioneers have had to hire more staff to deal with the new health measures.
“We’ll have more outlets than we normally have. Coca-Cola brought their festival trailer down, so we have to staff that,” he said.
The Coca-Cola trailer will serve bottled drinks, hot dogs, bratwurst, cotton candy and some ice cream treats, Heeman said.
“We brought in the Coca-Cola trailer so people don’t have to come all the way from behind the scoreboard to the concession stand to get food,” he said.
Heeman said the directed health measures may also be a blessing in disguise. If people like the new $5 seating areas and the concession trailer, he said those may become permanent fixtures at the ballpark.
“There are some things that we’re doing for this COVID-19 pandemic that are really good ideas on how we change the way we do things. We’re learning a lot through this,” he said.
Domino’s Pizza has been a hit at the concession stands in the past, Heeman said. Since Domino’s offers contactless delivery, Heeman said they will be allowed to continue to offer it at the main concession stand.
Fans on the party deck will also see some changes. Food used to be served buffet-style, but they won’t be allowed to do that this summer, Heeman said.
“When we have a party deck, we have to add staff for that,” he said. “We’re not allowed to let (fans serve themselves). Someone has to serve them.”
Heeman said he doesn’t think there will be any problems getting fans to keep themselves and other fans safe.
“We will suggest to people that they follow the regulations, and I think people get it after three or four months of this,” Heeman said.
Another change fans will notice will be in how they are seated, Heeman said.
“We’ve got our reserved seats marked off, and we’ll have our bleacher seats marked off,” he said. “We’ve got, what I think, is a pretty good plan in place.”
Fans will also notice regular announcements reminding them to practice social distancing. The Pioneers have also had to make some adjustments to their on-field promotions and the giveaways in the stands during games. The Pioneers will have fewer people on the field during those promotions. Heeman said the one change he doesn’t like is that kids will not be able to go onto the field and get the players’ autographs after games.
“I hope that changes because that is really one of the fun things,” he said. “The players love it when little kids come down to get their autographs. I’m hoping that’s something we can change at some point during the season.”
The fan experience may be a little different, Heeman said, but it is better than not playing this summer.
The upside is, we’re getting to play where so many leagues aren’t,” he said. “It’s a lot of inconveniences, but at least we’re able to do it.”
Gates will open at 5:30 p.m. for the season opener against the Pierre Trappers. First pitch is set for 6:30.
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