The Staples Center in Los Angeles becomes the first California arena to reopen Thursday (April 15), ending a COVID-19 closure that dragged on far longer than Lee Zeidman expected when he closed the doors to the public 400 days ago.
The LA Live and Staples Center president tells Billboard that the reopening is the result of months of planning and millions of dollars spent reimagining live events as touchless, mobile-driven experiences with fans distanced, masked and spread across the seating bowl in pods.
The home game is a milestone for California arenas, which are now allowed to operate at 25% capacity. For Staples Center, that’s 5,500 fans, although only about 2,000 will attend Thursday’s home game between the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics.
Staples Center is California’s first professional indoor sports arena to reopen to the public — Orange County’s Honda Center opens Friday with an Anaheim Ducks game, followed next week with San Francisco’s Chase Center and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.
The Staples Center reopening is being done under guidelines from the state and the Los Angeles County health department, Zeidman says. Attendees will be required to wear a mask while inside the Staples Center and must show proof of vaccination (which can be a picture of their vaccine card) or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of tip off. Fans will also be asked to maintain social distancing and seats will be organized in socially distanced pods.
Fans will be not be permitted to eat on the concourse, in the seating bowl or in suites, so Staples Center officials have constructed an outdoor food court on LA Live’s X Box Plaza that will be accessible to fans during the event. To minimize COVID-19 exposure to its event staff, the venue is telling fans not to bring bags or purses into the arena in order to minimize the need to search patrons and their belongings as they enter the building.
Zeidman said AEG was eager to reopen the arena and have its employees return to work.
“First and foremost, our concern was for our part-time employees. We have over 2,000 part time employees and nobody really understood that we would be closed for 13 months,” Zeidman explains. “We have full-time employees that moved to 50% work as well as furloughed employees, and we spent a lot of time keeping everybody up to speed on what is going on and letting them know where we were in terms of reopening.”
Zeidman said his team undertook a top to bottom audit of the building “and we decided that we were going to make everything as touchless and cashless as possible. We retrofitted all of our restrooms with touchless paper towel dispensers, hand sinks, soap dispensers and flush valves. We put UV cleaners on all of our escalator rails. We put NanoSeptic sleeves over our elevator buttons and our doors and took everything that you had to touch out.”
Some of the efforts fit with existing longterm initiatives, like a move toward 100% digital ticketing which ultimately give teams and promoters more control over event tickets and provide arena officials with a more reliable snapshot of who’s in the building. Other changes — like a cooling and heating overhaul so building officials could install MERV 15 virus eliminating air filters — came less than a year after the building overhauled its humidity and moisture systems to make ice for hockey more efficiently (Zeidman said the two systems complement each other).
What the changes mean for the return of concerts remains to be seen, explained Zeidman, noting that state and local guidelines could significantly change between now and Aug. 6, when Grupo Firme play a three-night-run at Staples Center.
“We’re prepared to fully pivot when appropriate and when need be, if the state or the county or the NBA or the NHL relax guidelines and restrictions,” Zeidman explains. “I’ve told our team we need to think of this in increments. We have to adhere to the rules of the state of California and the county of Los Angeles, but be ready when we move from the orange tier to the yellow tier and are allowed to increase capacities.”
Zeidman says he’s doubtful mask and distancing mandates will be gone by the time the state plans to reopen entirely on June 15, but says the fastest path to reopening will be through an increase in vaccine distribution. While the travel industry has discussed plans to roll out digital passports to verify a patient’s vaccine status, Zeidman said he’d prefer so see a push toward herd immunity, which would mitigate the need for long term vaccine verification.
The longtime GM estimates he’s worked 6,500 events in his 30-year career and said he’s still wrapping his mind around Thursday’s opening.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how people react,” he says. “People normally would come hug me, shake my hand, or talk in my ear because it was loud. That stuff’s not going to happen right out of the shoot. I’m not even going to be able to see smiling faces because everybody’s got a face covering. But just to see our team members working again, knowing that things are starting to get better, is very exciting.”