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Relief pitch: Bill would give minor league teams a break with social distancing rules

Schawnne Kilgus and her husband, Matt Karabinus, of Altoona take a selfie during a Curve game against the Harrisburg Senators on April 15, 2019. Mirror file photo

Thanks to new bipartisan legislation proposed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania minor league teams could be getting a big attendance boost to start the season.

State Reps. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, and Mark Rozzi, D-Temple, announced a new bill to reduce social distancing requirements in minor league stadiums across the state from the standard 6 feet to 3 feet — still within the recommendations by the World Health Organization.

The Altoona Curve and the State College Spikes are two local clubs that stand to gain immediately if the bill makes it through the state Legislature. Minor league teams have been hit hard since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Curve has not had its traditional sources of revenue in 18 months because fans were unable to attend games and the 2020 season was canceled.

Gregory wants this bill to help alleviate some of the damage the Curve and minor league clubs throughout the commonwealth have sustained, both financially and socially. The legislation not only addresses the well-being of the clubs, but also the well-being of their fans and the communities around them, Gregory said.

“If we don’t have the Altoona Curve and we don’t make this legislation happen, I fear that the Altoona Curve and Blair County ballpark sits empty; and I don’t ever want to see that happen,” Gregory said. “We should be able to responsibly and safely go to a ball game and be able to distance by 3 feet and allow people to enjoy what minor league baseball brings to the region — not just to Altoona and Blair County, but the entire region.”

Students enjoy activities in the stands during Education Day at the Altoona Curve game against the Erie SeaWolves on May 1, 2019. The Curve’s 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19. A new state bill seeks to ease some social distancing regulations to allow more people to attend minor league baseball games. Mirror file photo

This year has already not gotten off to the best start, as the Curve’s season has been pushed back from its typical kickoff at the beginning of April to the beginning of May. Local fans like Dawn Dibert see this proposal as a lifeline for smaller clubs like the Curve.

“The Altoona Curve took a big hit with no baseball last year, so it would be great for them to put more people in the seats,” Dibert said. “We’re already postponing until May and even a stadium at half capacity is going to hurt the Curve. Putting fans in the seats is really going to be a big boost.”

Mark Ickes, executive director at Explore Altoona, said large outdoor spaces are a main selling point right now to cater to the needs and safety concerns of tourists, so the easing of restrictions for the Curve would fit right in with that pattern.

“Increased capacities at many venues and attractions will bring the opportunity for additional business in the form of increased attendance and travel spending but along with that, a delicate balance of responsibility for the host facilities and businesses as well as the public,” Ickes said.

Traveling and tourism will require self-responsibility on the part of those visiting the region and they will be expected to follow health and safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health, Ickes said. He hopes the proposal will bring an influx of visitors to Blair County to also influence local businesses and boost the economy during the homestands.

A children’s group reacts to a shower of water during Super Splash Day during the Altoona Curves game with the Erie SeaWolves on July 24, 2019, at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The Curve believes the stadium is equipped to safely welcome more fans with all the precautions the front office has put in place aside from the proposed changes to social distancing.

“As an outdoor venue and with the health and safety protocols we’ve developed in partnership with the Blair County Department of Emergency Services, we believe we can safely host more fans than the guidelines currently allow,” Curve General Manager Derek Martin said. “Curve Baseball represents a sense of community pride that cannot be adequately quantified, and we look forward to providing the best, safest, family-friendly entertainment experience beginning on Opening Day.”

The State College Spikes — who play on Penn State University’s campus — are also eager to work with Gregory and Rozzi to safely and effectively bring more fans into the stands.

“Our elected officials continue to be tremendously supportive of our efforts, and we cannot thank them enough,” General Manager Scott Walker said. “We look forward to providing a fun, family-friendly, and above all, safe environment for our fans in Happy Valley.”

Overall, the feeling is a good one for most who would be affected by the bill if it passes. Eileen Snyder, a season ticket holder and president of the Altoona Curve booster club, is grateful that this is even a possibility after the rough stretch the Curve and minor league teams around the country have had to go through.

“Masks are still required,” Snyder said. “Whether or not fans will keep them on while in their seats, I don’t know. As far as the attendance goes, if they could do 3 feet, that would be a godsend to the Curve. We really want to keep this ballpark functioning. Having a baseball team here has been a tremendous boost to the community.”

Mirror Copy Editor and Staff Writer Nate Powles can be reached at 814-946-7466.

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