Fans returned to New York City sports venues yesterday (Tuesday) for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19 as Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center hosted New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets NBA basketball games.

Madison Square Garden welcomed around 2,000 fans as the Knicks fell to a 114-106 defeat against the Golden State Warriors. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that venues with a capacity of 10,000 or more would be permitted to stage events with a limited number of spectators from February 23, paving the way for the state’s sports teams to welcome fans back.

The announcement came on the back of a successful fan pilot programme involving the Buffalo Bills NFL American football team, which welcomed more than 6,000 spectators for its game against the Indianapolis Colts last month.

Venues and events in the state of New York are required to follow similar guidelines to those in place for the Bills game. Department of Health approval is required, with a 10% capacity limit to be put in place along with testing requirements, mandatory face coverings, temperature checks and socially distanced seating.

All staff and spectators at venues are required to receive a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the event. Fans’ contact information is also being collected to support contact tracing efforts.

Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks and NHL ice hockey team the New York Rangers, had detailed plans to host around 2,000 fans at every game, beginning with the Knicks’ game against the Warriors and the Rangers’ game against the Boston Bruins on Friday.

However, it was the visiting team that emerged triumphant in front of a crowd of around 2,000 yesterday, with Warriors star Stephen Curry hailing the impact of fans being back in the arena.

“There were some fans heckling, which was awesome, and me and Draymond (Green) were talking about it: There’s no better feeling — I don’t care if it’s 19,000 or 2,500 or whatever it is — you love silencing a road crowd,” said Curry, according to the Associated Press news agency. “So that was a cool experience considering not many arenas have had fans this year and it does make a huge difference.”

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said the return of fans represented “a first step back toward normalcy,” while a team spokesman said the game was a sellout and everyone who attended passed their health screening.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said: “Even just having a couple thousand fans makes a difference. It just feels more normal, more real. The crowd noise actually shows up at the exact right time and not canned laughter like in a sitcom.”

Knicks fan Elgin Swift said he happily paid $100 (£71/€82) for a ticket, adding the game represented a chance to regain part of his pre-pandemic life. “It’s almost just a sense of relief to feel like we’re taking steps toward normality,” Swift told the Reuters news agency. “For 2.5 hours today I’m going to feel closer to normality than I’ve felt since last year.”

In Brooklyn, the Barclays Center has taken a steadier approach to the return of fans. Some 300 were in place for yesterday’s 127-118 win over the Sacramento Kings, with this figure set to rise to 1,800 by early March.

Barclays Center dispensed novel coronavirus testing kits to all ticketholders in advance and also required fans to submit to an on-site nasal swab for antigen rapid testing, before entering. Spectators were spread out in pods of two or four seats and were required to wear a face mask at all time, aside from when eating or drinking.

Image: Ajay Suresh/CC BY 2.0/Edited for size