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Milwaukee Bucks Hoop It Up Before A Few Thousand Masked Fans

Chuck Quirmbach
The plaza outside the Fiserv Forum is now mostly empty before Bucks games.

The Milwaukee Bucks return to the Fiserv Forum Saturday night, after a few games on the road. It'll be the team's first home contest since fan capacity has been allowed to nearly double under health rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. About 3,300 fans may now attend games.

WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach went to the Bucks home game versus the New York Knicks on March 11, for a look at pro basketball during a pandemic.

The first thing you notice on the plaza outside the Fiserv Forum before a game is the lack of people at the nearby bars and restaurants. Then you repeatedly hear the P.A. system crank out this health announcement: "Welcome back to Fiserv Forum. Your health and safety is our top priority.”

The recorded voice goes on to ask fans to follow requirements, even outside, such as wearing of masks — except when eating or drinking.

Also, people don't arrive in large groups. They're asked to come to the Fiserv at specific times to avoid clustering together near an entrance.

Still, fan Lisa Kulwicki of South Milwaukee said the requirements have put her mind at ease about catching the coronavirus.

Chuck Quirmbach
Fans sit in small groups called pods during the Bucks game at the Fiserv Forum.

"I'm not concerned at all. I got my mask. You know, everything's social distancing. Everybody's abiding to the guidelines. So, I feel very safe,” she said.

A couple from central Wisconsin, Mark Baker and Wendy, said they came to the game because they're tired of watching on television from 100 miles away.

"It's a whole different experience inside the forum,” Wendy said.

Mark continued, "The energy you can feel during the game, it's not something you can experience at home or at a couch."

Inside the arena, there are more health warnings on the scoreboard, and fans are supposed to stay seated. Two to four people can sit together in what are called pods.

Chuck Quirmbach
The scoreboard at the Fiserv Forum offers frequent health reminders, before and during games.

Yet, the Bucks try to make the game seem festive, like there's a full house of 17,341. There's still a lot of loud music played by the team's DJ, and plenty of flashing lights.

But the 1,800 fans, the capacity for the last month or so, make far less noise on their own. Exceptions are when the Bucks make an exciting play, especially superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who the P.A. announcer still calls The Greek Freak.

Dennis Williams, Fiserv Forum's general manager of operations, acknowledges being at a game during a nearly empty arena is a new experience.

Chuck Quirmbach
Dennis Williams, Fiserv Forum's General Manager of Operations, stands in the press box before the game.

"It's different! But from where we were, I think we're all grateful. And it's been a humbling experience and ... we're very excited to have anybody in the building,” he said.

Last spring, as COVID-19 began to spread, the Bucks and all other NBA teams shut down their home arenas and eventually began to play at a venue in Florida nicknamed The Bubble because it had many additional health precautions.

Now, starting with the March 20 game, the Bucks are going from 10% to 18% capacity at Fiserv, adding 1,500 fans.

Williams described what'll be noticeably different: "Right now, we're not using just over a quarter of our upper concourse, seating bowl area, as well as suites. ... And then, there are pods that are available that are being slotted in, in existing sections. Everything will still be six foot social distance, and spaced out appropriately and comfortably."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the news media March 11 that the city health department likes what the Bucks have mapped out.

"The fact that they worked so closely with us and put together this plan is really what has allowed them to move forward. So, we're very thankful for their cooperation and coordination in helping us get them to where they want to be," he said.

With the Bucks playing better in recent weeks, and more people vaccinated against COVID-19, it's expected attendance will go up.

Chuck Quirmbach
Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo prepares to shoot a free throw during the March 11 game against the New York Knicks.

But one fan, Marquia, from Milwaukee, said don't expect her to come back.

"I will not, no,“ she said, laughing. “Not at this time, maybe once more people are vaccinated, then I'll be more comfortable. But I wouldn't be comfortable with that many people in a closed facility."

The Bucks were hoping to go higher than 18% capacity, and still are likely to push for that — especially in late May when the NBA playoffs start.

But that'll depend not on basketball statistics like foul shots and three-point shots, but stats on coronavirus variants and how many people get that vaccine shot in the arm.

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