Baseball Fans Are Coming Back to Stadiums, But Who Will Be Feeding Them?

Longtime ballpark vendors say they haven't been contacted about working the stands this season.

If you watched a Major League Baseball game last season, you probably did it from your own couch, where you stared longingly at the cardboard "fans" who got to sit in season ticket holders' seats and you listened to artificial crowd noises that almost never sounded natural. "If local public health authorities allow for fans, I think you're going to see fans in the ballpark next year," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said last fall. "Now, will it be full stadiums? I kind of doubt that."

Baseball's opening day is scheduled for April 1 (no, really), and Manfred's comments seem to have been right on—although the timing and exact number of fans who will be allowed in each ballpark varies wildly, due to state and local guidelines. For example, the Baltimore Orioles could be allowed to seat as many as 23,000 people inside Camden Yards but, less than 40 miles away, Washington, D.C. will not allow any fans at Nationals Park.

Los Angeles Angels vs. Oakland Athletics
A cutout of a hot dog vendor is seen in the first inning of the Oakland Athletics MLB game against the Los Angeles Angels at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, July 27, 2020. MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images / Contributor/Getty Images

Both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox have been given the official OK to fill their respective stadiums to 20 percent capacity for the start of the season, and all 8,000-plus fans will be asked to wear facemasks, welcomed through "limited contact" entrances, and they'll have to use cashless payments to buy their overpriced concessions.

According to Eater Chicago, there won't be any hot dog or beer vendors walking through Wrigley Field or Guaranteed Rate Field, at least not yet. Lloyd Rutzky, who has been a ballpark vendor in Chicago for 55 seasons, said that normally both baseball teams reach out to concessions vendors before the start of the season, allowing them to sign up to work upcoming games. Rutzky told Eater that he believes that fans will most likely be restricted to food stands that are located in the concourse areas, and won't be buying peanuts, Cracker Jacks, or anything else from their seats.

But, like everything else this season, the process of getting a seventh-inning snack will probably vary from ballpark to ballpark. In California, teams that play in counties that have been placed in the "purple tier" of pandemic-related restrictions cannot sell concessions at all—and, as of this writing, that includes the Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, and San Diego Padres. (The San Francisco Giants are in the red tier and, according to their website, the team is currently working on a "robust mobile device application" that would allow mobile ordering for in-seat delivery or pickup at a designated location in the concourse.)

That's... not great news for vendors whose livelihoods might depend on their ability to run up and down the stadium stairs for 81 home games a season. Rutzky told The Athletic that he'd tried calling Illinois' state unemployment office "about 100 times" to try to file for unemployment benefits. And Hal "The Hotdog Guy" Gordon, a longtime hot dog vendor for the Oakland A's, set up a GoFundMe to help his fellow out-of-work vendors in the Bay Area.

"I can't wait to get back to sweating and hollering in the seats," he told Men's Health last fall. "But I am also worried vendors may be the last part that comes back to stadiums. People walking in between fans who are trying to socially distance, serving them food without being able to wash hands between each transaction, and maybe most importantly, yelling and projecting our voices all seems like some of the riskiest post-COVID activities."

With decreasing case counts and an ever-increasing number of vaccines being given every day, hopefully Gordon, Rutzky, and their beer-and-'dog selling colleagues will be back in business before the end of this season.

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