Coronavirus Chronicles

Prepare for the Two States of Washington: Vaccinated and Unvaccinated

Separate stadium sections. Workplace debates. School mandates. Our political divide is about to become even more apparent.

By Benjamin Cassidy May 6, 2021

Above the third-base dugout, scores of Mariners fans sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Some are from the same household. Some just met. They’re masked unless they’re eating or drinking, which they’re doing quite a bit; there’s a lot to celebrate. They’re vaccinated.

When these ticketholders let their gazes drift up from the field and settle on the seats across the way, however, they see a much different arrangement of fellow M’s fans. These spectators sit in tiny clusters; their section is no more than a quarter full. They can remove their masks to gobble hot dogs, too, but they can only complain about the umpires with the people who joined them on their trips to the stadium. They’re not vaccinated yet. 

This scene could greet the home team when the Mariners take the field next week at T-Mobile Park. Could, because no one can say for certain yet how the team will configure its available seating after the state’s latest update to spectator guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, a day before Jay Inslee announced in a presser that the counties would pause in their current stages of the state’s reopening, the governor’s office quietly released a far more momentous policy update: The state would allow indoor and outdoor venues to increase their capacities if they could offer vaccinated-only sections.

The news arrived after months of speculation about how employers, schools, and event organizers will reckon with vaccination, an individual choice that has blurred the line between personal and public and, to some degree, has advertised one’s politics. Counties that voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election have initiated vaccination earlier than many Republican areas, The Seattle Times recently reported, and that trend has played out nationally. Vaccine hesitancy in Washington remains low compared to many areas of the country, but it’s still festering here, threatening to create a literal divide in physical spaces that hews to our political one.

Last week, the University of Washington said it would require students to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, joining Washington State University, Seattle University, and other schools across the country. This was expected; colleges have long mandated certain immunizations before fall enrollment. Yet the school has not yet required its faculty to receive the shots, a preview of workplace debates to come as more organizations return to shared offices. 

But sports stadiums seems like the most likely arena for this partitioning of the population to first surface—and, perhaps, the most fraught. Unlike arts venues in their vicinity, the Sounders and Mariners' stadiums have already welcomed back many spectators this season, albeit in more limited numbers than normal. The new guidelines allow the teams, both of which are administering first doses at their games, to bump up their outdoor capacities to 22,000, with a maximum of 9,000 of those fans unvaccinated. Fully dosed fans need only flash their vaccine cards (or photos of them) to prove they’re fully vaccinated; kids between the ages of two and 15 must show a negative Covid test. The Mariners confirmed on Wednesday that the club will offer vaccinated-only sections. The Sounders, who don’t host another match until May 16, are still reviewing the guidance.

It’s a lot to take in, admittedly. Creating two separate game experiences will be difficult to navigate for even the most well-intentioned franchise. Not all stadium sections are created equal; the new policy incentivizes a team to fill its most expensive (best) seats to the vaccinated masses and relegate unvaccinated fans to the outfield bleachers. (Update: Interestingly, the Mariners announced on Friday they're doing the opposite, putting the vaccinated sections far from home plate.) The governor clearly wants the vaccinated to feel rewarded. “There will be an increasing number of incentives available to people and businesses like this going ahead,” Inslee said this week. “It’s a way to start to get total liberty from this pandemic.”

Ann Bostrom, a professor in UW’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, believes this peer pressure could bring “incremental” progress in the vaccination effort, perhaps swaying people on the fence. It may also reduce the risk of transmission, even if outdoor activity is already very safe. But it also could encourage exploitation (phony vaccine cards) and even prompt some understandable alienation. “If you really care about fairness, and you think that not everybody has equal access to vaccines, you might feel like this is not a good thing,” says Bostrom.

Backlash to such a policy is a near certainty in any venue, but especially one in the sports realm. Sports and politics often don’t play well together because team allegiances unite people from across the map and, thus, the political spectrum. This is a fracturing, and how far it will extend in Washington, and for how long, is still anyone's guess.

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