Under nearly cloudless skies, Philadelphia Eagles fans returned to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday to cheer on their team for the first time this season.
They wore their Eagles hats and jerseys. Some even donned Eagles face masks. One family arrived in a van covered in Eagles colors, name and logo.
It was a little slice of normal in a pandemic that has taken away so much. But only a little slice. So much was different.
“This would have been a sea of people, mostly green,” said Herb Wilkins, 52, a longtime season-ticket holder, as he motioned to the area around the entrance to the stadium.
The return of fans came as Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia eased COVID-19 restrictions, even as the state on Saturday recorded its second-highest daily coronavirus case count — 1,857 — since the pandemic began. The city’s decision to allow as many as 7,500 people at its largest outdoor venues was based on evidence that the virus doesn’t spread as easily outside as it does indoors. Still, Philadelphia is requiring masks and social distancing at such venues and blocking off seats to prevent people from sitting less than six feet apart from those not in their own household.
Only 6,000 Eagles fans were allowed to attend Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, a fraction of the 69,796 the stadium can hold.
“Philly is so into their sports, and to see it not packed is weird,” said Amanda Nolter, 23, of Northeast Philadelphia.
And inside, the strangeness continued.
“It’s very empty in here,” said Mimi DeVita, 25, a nurse from New York City. “It’s a crazy experience compared to a usual game.”
All of the unused seats were zip-tied together to ensure social distancing.
DeVita attended with her parents, sister, uncle and a family friend, most of them arriving in the parents' Eagles van from their home in Ridgewood, N.J. Tom and Maggie DeVita converted the family van to a Birds mobile after their six children grew up and they no longer needed it to move them around. The group tailgated at Chickie’s & Pete’s near the stadium before game time, an idea that was not unique.
“We’re delighted to be here,” said Tom DeVita said.
Allentown native Chris Handwerk came with his son, Keller, 14. He scored two tickets on the 50-yard line, 30 rows up from the visitor’s bench, for $500 each. He and his son were the only ones in their row.
It’s “weird to be able to walk up to a concession stand with no line, and be able to get from there to my seat without being within 10 feet of anyone without trying,” said Handwerk, a strategist for an energy company, who lives in Baltimore. “Kind of a ghost town feeling, or like they set up the game just for us.”
He usually avoids halftime snacks and restroom breaks, but this time, round trip, it took only seven minutes, even with every other urinal and sink unavailable, he said.
“Wish every game was like that,” he said.
The usual stadium din was muted, especially as the Ravens got out to an early lead. It was almost possible to hear individual conversations, Handwerk said. Fans, however, figured out how to make noise in clutch situations.
“Many ... are banging on the seats,” he said, “which is much louder than clapping.”
Fans were thrilled to be able to cheer on their team in person again.
“They need fans,” said Courtney Conrad, 19, of Garnet Valley, as she prepared to enter the stadium with her mother, who donned a Carson Wentz jersey.
When tickets became available, fans pounced.
“We were tailgating at the computer to buy the tickets,” said Brett Hudson, 28, of Media.
Hudson and coworker Amanda Joseph, 25, of Forked River, N.J., were happy that game day had arrived.
“It doesn’t feel like football season without us being here,” Joseph said.
At the stadium entrance, signs warned people to “maintain social distance,” while event staff patrolled the area. “Masks up, please,” one said, as some mask-less fans approached holding drinks.
One man in a backward Eagles cap heckled the workers after he was warned. “Get her, get her,” he said, pointing at a woman ahead. But he pulled up his mask when he got in line to enter.
Many fans readily complied with the rules and said they weren’t really worried about any health risk, given that the game is outdoors and everyone would be socially distanced.
“I’m more concerned going to Walmart than I am coming here,” said Colin Wilk, 26, of Northeast Philadelphia.
It was a tough first half for Eagles fans as the Ravens' defense dominated. And despite an impressive comeback in the third quarter, the team lost.
But the day had its moments. Midway through the third quarter, when the Birds finally scored a touchdown, Handwerk and his son jumped up and embraced and joined in the singing of “Fly Eagles Fly.” It was his son’s first Eagles home game, no doubt a time to remember amid a pandemic.
“I love singing that song here when they score," Handwerk said, "and now I got to share that with him.”