CLEVELAND — With just weeks until the Browns’ home opener on Thursday, Sept. 17, fans are no doubt wondering if they’ll be able to watch their team face off against the Cincinnati Bengals from the seats of FirstEnergy Stadium.
Short answer: We don’t know. Long answer: Keep reading.
On a virtual news conference streamed online Sunday, Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said they have been working closely with the governor’s office and the City of Cleveland for the last eight to 10 weeks on a plan to bring 20% of fans to FirstEnergy.
“We have put a lot of time, effort and resources into ensuring that if we did have ‘20% fans’ it could be a safe experience,” Jimmy said. “We feel good about that opportunity. Obviously, the final decision is up to the governor, but we are ready and excited to go, and I think the City of Cleveland feels the same way.”
On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced plans and guidelines around sports in the fall, with a focus on how high school sports, including contact sports, will be allowed to operate, with stipulations—the ultimate decisions being left to each district. He spoke about limiting spectators at high school games while allowing close family of the players to attend.
On Wednesday night, the Ohio Department of Health released the associated order providing mandatory requirements and guidance for youth, collegiate, amateur, club and professional sports. Included in that order were many of the mandates that are already a reality for Ohioans: face masks at all times when not on the field or court, six-foot distancing and access to sanitizing products.
On page eight of that order, the section “Limitation on Spectators at Sports Venues” reads, in part: “The maximum number of individuals gathered in any outdoor Sports venue is the lesser of 1500 or 15 percent of fixed, seated capacity.”
FirstEnergy stadium holds about 68,000 people, 15% of which would be just over 10,000. The order would limit spectators to the lesser: just 1,500 Browns fans.
However, the next section provides an exception: “A sport or specific athletic event or venue may submit a plan that differs from the venue capacity requirements in this Order, in writing, to their local health department for review and also to the Ohio Department of Health.”
That plan must be approved by both the local and state health departments.
Gov. DeWine spoke to Bruce Murray and Brady Quinn on the SiriusXM NFL Radio channel Thursday morning, confirming that the Browns, along with the Reds, Indians and Bengals, have submitted a request for an exemption to the spectator limit.
“They already have their plans in, and they are good plans,” DeWine said. “Those four franchises will do a good job. We have no doubt that they will manage the crowd inside that ballpark or that stadium fine. People are talking about 15 or 20%.”
The concern, DeWine said, is what happens with that 20% of fans—in the case of the Browns, over 13,000 people—in the hours before and after the game.
“These are the concerns when you bring that many people together because we still have an order in Ohio – we have exceptions to it – that we don’t want groups of more than 10 people [together]…bringing that many people to Downtown Cleveland or Downtown Cincinnati, that is a real problem,” he said.
While the Haslams agree that safety must come first, they know the economic impact that a season with fewer or zero Browns fans coming to Downtown Cleveland will have.
“We get it that not having 65,000 people down there eight games is a major blow a lot of people that work at the stadium and all the businesses around there,” Jimmy said. “The sooner we can safely get people back to work, the better off we are going to do. We are going to do everything we can at the Browns and would encourage other businesses to do the same. At the same time, at the end of the day, it is not our call about how many fans we have in the stands on Sunday or if we have fans in the stands. We want it to happen for our players and for those fans.”
So when can Browns fans expect to find out if they’ll be able to cheer Baker Mayfield and company on in person?
“We have not made any decision,” DeWine said. “We have been in consultation with the teams. They have been very forthcoming and have a good plan. We are not there yet. We are just not ready to do that. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it and it doesn’t mean we won’t do it at some level, but we are not there yet.”
A Browns official confirmed that the team is still hopeful they can have fans based on the plan they submitted that is pending approval from the governor. That plan is still being considered and discussed.
So when can we expect to learn the fate of the Dawg Pound? As with so much during this uncertain time, the only constant is change.
“I would not want to speculate that it needs to be a week or two weeks ahead of time. I think you will hear us say this a lot today, everybody has to remain fluid and flexible in everything we do,” Jimmy said. “I think we have all learned to do that over the last four or five months.”