Want to socially-distance at large events? Be prepared to pay more

Mar 5, 2021

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Many Americans realized the pandemic would become a problem when the NBA shut down its season last March after a player tested positive. Nearly a year later, (some) fans are back in the stands, albeit with more restrictions.

Restarting large-scale events will be pivotal to reopen New York fully. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in February that sports and entertainment events would reopen at 10% capacity, which meant that Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Madison Square Garden — nicknamed “the world’s most famous arena” — could also reopen.

TPG bought a ticket to a game between the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden on March 4 to see how large-scale venues are starting to reopen amid the pandemic. But before you grab your favorite player’s jersey and head off to a game, keep in mind that there are strict entry requirements. 

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For starters, all staff and fans must have a negative COVID-19 PCR test, taken within 72 hours of the game, per New York State guidelines. PCR tests are considered the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing and detect active infections. 

This is a change from testing requirements in other industries, including travel. All travelers flying into the United States are now required to present a negative test to board. However, rapid tests, which are appealing because they deliver quick results but can have a high false-negative rate, are accepted. 

With those requirements in mind, I scheduled a quick test at Rapid Test Center, located just a block from the 14th Street L/F/M lines in Greenwich Village two days before the game. The Village is a hike from my Brooklyn apartment, but time was of the essence. I briefly considered going to an urgent care facility like ModernMD or CityMD but remembered their varying turnaround times and long lines from the winter holidays. 

Related: Traveling soon? Here’s where you can quickly get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

Though PCR tests generally take around 72 hours for results, some facilities have introduced “rapid PCR tests,” where you can receive your results in as few as 30 minutes. That said, if you’re looking for a faster way to get a PCR test, it’ll cost you.

Rapid Test Center facility promised a four-hour turnaround for RT-PCR tests — but it came at the cost of $250 out of pocket. Still, I found the price worth it, especially when I got my results a mere 40 minutes after taking the test. You can also get tested at a facility that partners with Madison Square Garden with a turnaround time of 30 minutes, but it’s also pricey

Photo by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

But the PCR test wasn’t the only expense I’d incur to see an NBA game in person.  

If you want to buy a ticket to a game at Madison Square Garden and you’re going alone — be prepared to pay significantly more. 

Because I’m one of the few vaccinated people in my pod, I didn’t bother asking anyone if they’d like to go with me, so I searched for a single ticket. This is where I ran into a costly problem. 

There is no way to book a single ticket on Ticketmaster or resale websites like StubHub. Nowhere in the arena is there an option for one person who wants to book one ticket alone. That meant I had to book two — or even four — tickets, even if attending the game alone. 

At first, I thought it was a glitch on the Ticketmaster and StubHub sites, or that single people have always been required to purchase tickets in bulk. That was not the case — the bulk ticketing process is a function brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, a person familiar with the rule told TPG. And this process isn’t limited to New York, Madison Square Gardens or even the NBA.

Stubhub’s website carries a notice that tickets are only available “in the listed quantities and cannot be split” to support social distancing.

“We’re working really closely with [sports] leagues, teams and venues to make sure that we are translating whatever COVID-19 protocols they have in place on their end under the secondary marketplace. So if you’re looking for a Knicks ticket on Stubhub, there are no single tickets available,” said Brad Glasser, the global communications director at Stubhub. 

The reason for that, Glasser continued, is what sports leagues are calling “pod integrity,” which is that tickets purchased together must be sold together so that people in different “pods” aren’t too close to each other.

That means if you want to attend large-scale events alone, you’ll pay to do so. In my case, two tickets for one person cost a whopping $190 for a Thursday night game.

Photo by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

Negative test in hand, I quickly completed the other MSG iPhone app requirements and headed over to the arena. Additionally, Madison Square Garden requires guests to complete a health survey — similar to a digital health passport — which you have to show to enter the arena. 

I arrived a little early, so I didn’t have to wait in line. The screening was relatively simple; I presented my negative COVID-19 PCR test and health screen, showed my ticket and went through security. 

Photo by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

An usher greeted me with a hearty “welcome back,” and fans got commemorative “New York Forever” T-shirts. Fans seemed thrilled to be back in the arena, with the game being just the fourth with fans at Madison Square Garden since reopening. The Pistons were also the last team the Knicks played in front of a full crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Once inside the arena, social distancing reminders were everywhere, a reminder that we are still in an active pandemic in one of the world’s earliest hard-hit cities. 

Ushers were on hand to remind fans to cover their mouths when not eating or drinking. Every few minutes, there were reminders to wear a mask, wash your hands and stay six feet apart. The last reminder was punctuated with a fun basketball fact from the announcer: “Did you know the average wingspan of a basketball player is six feet?” 

Photo by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

There were just two other people on my row and about three dozen in my section, so the arena — even at its loudest moments, such as when the Knicks scored, felt empty. 

Even still, it was hard to forget that I was in an arena with 2,000 people I did not know, and it dawned on me that it was the first time I’d been around this many people since the pandemic started. The convergence of alcohol, cheering and jeering (at the Pistons) was a little unsettling at times. 

After the game (the Knicks won 114–104), getting out of the venue was orderly, and ushers were on hand to guide traffic flow to the exit.

Bottom line

I believe that, despite New York state’s protocols, getting people back in arenas and other large events might prove to be a challenge, especially for those who have spent the pandemic mostly alone. The money factor — my PCR test and two game tickets totaled $440 — may also be a burden on cash-strapped families.

Still, events are the lifeblood of New York City. I’m not a sports fan in the slightest, but there was something extremely emotional about sitting inside an arena that’s a significant part of New York’s culture. And the fans seemed generally thrilled to be back as well. 

All photos by the author

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