Damian Lillard bounded onto the Moda Center hardwood May 7, his face beaming at the sight of 1,939 fans greeting him from “pods” scattered around the arena bowl.
It was what the Trail Blazers star had publicly demanded: the return of fans to Portland sporting events after the team spent a year playing dispirited basketball in front of empty seats and cardboard cutouts. On May 3, Gov. Kate Brown granted Lillard’s wish, allowing 10% capacity inside the arena.
Lillard made the most of his chance: He led the Blazers to three consecutive victories in front of hometown fans.
It’s not clear whether Oregon health officials can say the same. Missing from Moda Center was a sight found three hours up Interstate 5 in Seattle, where baseball’s Mariners for more than a week have offered COVID-19 vaccinations inside T-Mobile Park.
That ballpark vaccine clinic is an especially striking contrast because it’s so nearby, in a part of the country where most professional sports teams are run by Vulcan, the estate of late tech billionaire Paul Allen. (The Mariners are not.)
The Blazers were the last team in the NBA to allow fans back in the arena. And when they did, the team put many precautions in place for the pandemic.
A reopening plan obtained by WW shows the details were as granular as having fans arrive at staggered 15-minute intervals so they wouldn’t line up together, serving smaller food portions so masks stayed on longer, and creating a two-strike policy for mask removal, not unlike the technical fouls that would get Carmelo Anthony ejected from games.
But there was no tie to the public health drive to vaccinate more people.
That may represent a missed opportunity as Oregon and the rest of the United States face a slowing interest in vaccinations well before the country reaches herd immunity, the point at which enough people have sufficient resistance to the disease to halt its spread.
Until last week, Portland saw heavy competition for vaccination appointments. But the Portlanders most motivated and able to take the time to get vaccinated have gotten shots. So far, more than 52% of Multnomah County residents have received their first dose.
Now public health officials and hospitals face a new challenge: getting the vaccine to people who don’t feel especially motivated to roll up their sleeves.
The Blazers might have done that in two ways: by requiring vaccinations to get into Moda Center, or by offering shots at the arena. So far, they’ve done neither—even though a team executive says they’re willing to attempt the latter.
Trail Blazers president and CEO Chris McGowan told Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano last week that the team informed Gov. Kate Brown it was willing to hold vaccination drives in the arena.
The Blazers tell WW a vaccination clinic at playoff games is still on the table. “We are in active conversation with the governor’s office related to this,” says Ashley Clinkscale, a Blazers senior vice president.
Providing vaccinations at games and linking openings to shots might be one way to get more people vaccinated, say some experts.
“It makes sense,” says Oregon State University professor Chunhuei Chi. “Vaccination is the fastest and cheapest way to get this under control. And we need to encourage people who can to get vaccinated to give them an incentive. It’s not only protecting oneself; it’s protecting others, our entire community.”
On May 11, Brown announced plans to tie Oregon’s full reopening to 70% of Oregonians, age 16 and up, having at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
“Right now we are evaluating every option to encourage and incentivize vaccinations, and we are watching the efforts being piloted in other states,” says Brown spokesman Charles Boyle. “Nothing currently prohibits businesses from offering discounts or other promotions to vaccinated Oregonians.”
A growing body of research suggests many Americans will need either incentives for vaccination or penalties for avoiding it—or at least an option for shots so easy they won’t refuse.
As politicians worry about the political costs of requiring vaccination, the private sector has pushed more aggressively for vaccine requirements and other safety measures. That pattern happened in Oregon as private colleges began requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for fall enrollment. Public universities followed more slowly—but as of press deadlines, Portland State University, Oregon State University and the University of Oregon had all required shots as a condition for returning to campus.
California allowed outdoor and indoor entertainment venues to open with substantial COVID-19 spread still ongoing—if fans had proof of vaccination or negative test results. Under a moderate spread of the disease, California offered increased capacity limits at venues with those precautions.
In California and New York, Lakers, Kings, Nets and Knicks fans have been required to be two weeks past their last COVID-19 shot or have a negative COVID-19 test.
(In Miami, the Heat offered a vaccinated-only seating section beginning in early April, but that was quickly eliminated after Florida’s governor moved to ban so-called vaccine passports. The team blamed the plan’s demise on the logistical headache it might give fans.)
The city of Seattle worked with the Mariners on their vaccine clinics so firefighters could administer doses at the game. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced free baseball tickets for getting vaccinated.
Brown, by contrast, has expressed skepticism about vaccine requirements as part of reopening venues and other group spaces, citing the inequitable distribution of vaccines.
Clinkscale says Brown’s remarks discouraged the team from linking vaccination to tickets. “We understood the governor’s position on mandatory vaccinations as a non-starter,” she tells WW, “so no proposal was made.”
Notably, the most aggressive safety requirement during the Blazers game was that fans sitting courtside provide proof of a negative COVID test in the past 48 hours. That rule did not come from the state, according to the safety plan obtained by WW from the Oregon Health Authority. Instead, it came from the league.
“Per NBA requirements,” the plan states, “all guests that sit within 30 feet of the court must be tested within 48 hours of a game day.”
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that both the Blazers and the Mariners are owned by Vulcan. WW regrets the error.