A coarse rope blocked off every other row of the stadium seats on the Wrigley View Rooftop on Thursday. Betsy Shepherd, director of public relations, planned on replacing it with red and blue ribbon before Cubs Opening Day.
Festive, but effective. The seating for the 50 ticketholders scheduled to watch Friday’s game on the rooftop had to abide by social distancing guidelines.
“We’re so excited,” Shepherd said of Opening Day. “Personally, as a lifelong Cubs fan, I’m very excited. Even though we can just do 25 percent here on the rooftops, it’s something an it brings some normalcy to everybody’s life if you’re a sports fan.”
That’s become a familiar push and pull during the coronavirus pandemic: celebrations are tainted by risk, and slices of normalcy provide relief. In a time of cardboard cutouts in stands and canned crowd noise pumped through ballparks, the Cubs will have a genuine fan presence when they open the season against the Brewers Friday. It will just be on rooftops across the street.
“We’ve been in active dialogue with the city,” said Colin Faulkner, Cubs executive vice president of sales and marketing. “We walked them through our plan of how we’re going to operate the rooftops, most importantly because we know it’s so visible.”
The Cubs, via president of business operations Crane Kenney, announced their intention to open the rooftops a month ago. The Ricketts family, which owns the team, controls 11 of the 16 rooftop properties around the field.
Wrigley View Rooftop and Murphy’s Rooftop are among the few remaining independent properties, and both are also selling tickets this season. Lakeview Baseball Club, by contrast, announced on its website that it would not be opening this baseball season due to COVID-19.
The Murphy’s Rooftop website notes that tickets are available for groups of 10 only. The limited tickets for Wrigley View Rooftop and the Ricketts’ Wrigley Rooftops have been in high demand, even with elevated prices. As of Friday afternoon, the only remaining tickets at Wrigley View cost between $300 and $400. On the Wrigley Rooftops, single tickets were only available for a handful of games from July through mid-August. The cheapest was $399.
“We’re doing our best to gauge what the markets like,” Faulkner said. “In normal times, we have a lot of data to go off of. There’s just not really a lot of data (in this situation).”
As the inventory has decreased, the ticket prices have gradually risen. But even selling tickets at twice the price of a normal season – the cost of tickets fluctuates depending on opponent, day of the week, etc. – rooftops won’t bring in nearly what they would during a full season at full capacity.
For independently owned rooftops, the calculation ends about there. The Cubs’ math involves more moving parts.
“For us, it’s about showing how we can responsibly have fans enjoy baseball,” Faulkner said, “in the hopes that at some point we could potentially have a limited number of fans in the ballpark, whether that’s this season or next season.”
The Cubs used software to lay out the whole ballpark with space between groups and other social distancing parameters like leaving room around aisles and the field. That layout allowed them about 6,000 to 7,000 fans in the over 40,000-capacity venue.
A month ago, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot left open the possibility of sports venues opening to a limited number of fans at some point. Just not yet.
As Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein often says, “The pandemic is in control.”
On Thursday, Illinois health officials announced 1,624 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily total in nearly two months.
A gathering of any size during the coronavirus pandemic requires a risk-reward analysis, for both the host and the attendees. The rooftops are held to the same health and safety guidelines as Chicago restaurants and bars, including social distancing measures and capacity limits.
Taking added precautions, the Wigley Rooftops, largely outdoor venues, will limit each venue to a maximum of 50 ticketholders. That includes venues with capacities of over 200. Per city guidelines, all indoor spaces must be limited to 50 people per room or 25 percent capacity, whichever is fewer. Outdoor spaces face fewer restrictions.
“I just hope we can all keep wearing our mask and socially distance and all that good stuff,” Shepherd said, “so we can keep baseball going for the rest of the season.”
For now, a smattering of fans on the rooftops surrounding Wrigley Field will add to the the Cubs’ unique home atmosphere.
“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”
Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber called his shot weeks ago.
“I’m going to have to launch some balls up to the rooftops,” he said, “and give them a good little shimmy dance out there.”