Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, wasn’t sure what to expect from Sunday night’s Ravens game.
She knew she’d be hosting a group of 2026 World Cup location scouts from FIFA, but that they’d be fresh off the bus from a day of site visits in Washington, D.C. Maybe they’d be tired, Stokes thought. Maybe they’d want to leave at halftime, she figured.
But the delegation was fully engaged as the Ravens scrapped their way to an improbable 36-35 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Stokes said. Visits from former Ravens star Ray Lewis and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t hurt.
“We were singing and shouting and one of the things that they said consistently was just that our stadium — it showed so well,” she said. “What they could feel was just how our community rallied around our team.”
Sunday’s game will, at least for the time being, quiet critics who once said Lamar Jackson simply couldn’t outplay Patrick Mahomes. But it also provided a much-needed psychological and economic lift to downtown Baltimore, which hasn’t seen an event of that size since the pandemic began, Stokes said.
Of course, the excitement was measured by the pandemic’s persistence, but it felt like a sign of healing, she said.
“This was probably the best revenue day our restaurants and bars have had an extremely long time,” she said. “But it’s not even just those businesses. Think about supermarkets, liquor stores, apparel sales ... It was a catalyst for all of us in the city.”
Even the walk into the stadium with the delegates was electrifying, Stokes said. Baltimore, together with Washington, is among 17 finalists competing to make the list of 11 cities that in 2026 will host soccer’s biggest tournament.
“One of the delegates turned to me as we’re walking down Ravens Walk and he was like: ‘You guys did this for us?’” Stokes said.
A raucous crowd of 70,417 packed the stadium, which holds a little more than 71,000. An estimated 6,000 people boarded the light rail to get there and back again, said Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Paul Shepard. City police officers were on hand to manage the crowd, and they did not need to respond to any significant incidents on the scene, said Baltimore Police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge in an email.
“The energy around downtown Baltimore on Sunday night for the Ravens’ home opener proves that the charm never left Charm City,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who watched the game alongside Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and two winners of a city health department promotion rewarding recipients of COVID-19 vaccines. “The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a bitter economic blow to the region, but witnessing the tens of thousands who assembled safely around M&T Bank Stadium for the first sold-out game since the 2019 season offers hope and optimism.”
Even the concession stands were full of workers, a lucky break during a labor shortage affecting restaurants and other businesses nationwide.
“In regard to staffing levels, we were pleasantly surprised on how close we were to full capacity,” said Roy Sommerhof, the Ravens’ senior vice president of stadium operations, in an email. “All concessions stands were open and operating with the exception of a few [portable] concessions stands with equipment issues.”
But the convergence of throngs of screaming fans on M&T Bank Stadium could be a worrisome development as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, with the force added by the delta variant. Maryland’s average caseload has ballooned since August. As of Monday, the two-week average was 1,155 new cases a day — far lower than the all-time high of nearly 3,000, but a significant jump from July, when the average sank below 60 new cases a day. The trend in Baltimore has largely mirrored that in the state. Of late, about 100 new cases a day have been reported in the city.
In accordance with Baltimore City policy, masks were required in all indoor areas in the stadium, including retail stores, restrooms, the club level concourse, elevators, corridors and suites. Staff members were required to wear masks at all times. The stadium does not require attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
In addition, multiple members of the M&T Bank Stadium Leadership Team have completed a COVID-19 contact-tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins, Sommerhof said.
“If a positive case is reported, we will investigate according to the course outline and contact the appropriate city and state health officials and the league office,” Sommerhof said.
Fans generally followed COVID-19 protocols Sunday, Sommerhof said. When guests had to be reminded that face masks needed to be worn in indoor spaces, they complied, and no fans were ejected from the game as a result, he said.
The state health department recommends that any unvaccinated person quarantine if they were within 6 feet of someone who had COVID-19 while at the game for a cumulative total of 15 minutes, said spokesman Charlie Gischlar. Those who are vaccinated do not need to quarantine unless they have symptoms, he added.
Those who test positive will be contacted by contact tracers from the department, generally 24 hours after the department learns of the case, Gischlar said. The state is recommending that residents enable exposure notifications, a feature in the settings screen on iPhones, or download the free MD COVID Alert app from the Google Play app store to ease contact tracing efforts for large events like Sunday’s game, Gischlar said.
But the focus for fans Sunday was celebrating the return of an injury-depleted but undaunted Ravens squad, which treated them to a thriller.
“The energy of having everyone behind you and cheering you on in person is different. It boosts your confidence and makes them play much harder because they know they are not just playing for themselves,” said 23-year-old Malcolm Reynolds, a fan from Upper Marlboro. “When you have the city and fans behind you, you feel invincible.”
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Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.