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Jun. 1—Eau Claire Express fans waited a long time to watch their team again. No one could blame them for being eager to get in as early as possible Monday evening.

The parking lot next to the historic ballpark was already half full an hour before first pitch for the team’s season opener, the franchise’s first action since 2019. A line to get in was already wrapping around the exterior of the grandstand.

The interest in a return to play from the community was clear after it endured a summer without the Express last year due to COVID-19. And the atmosphere was what Express veterans would expect. Even with the team keeping Carson to a 50% max capacity, that was enough to foster an energy that has been absent from Chippewa Valley sporting events since the pandemic began.

There were oohs and ahhs when Rochester got things started with a hooked single in the first inning, and loud cheers when any Express player got on base or when pitcher Conner Mackay showed off his talents by striking out a member of the Honkers.

The weather looked daunting a few hours before first pitch, with sizable hail falling in Eau Claire, but it cleared up for a perfect 68-degree evening by the time fans started rolling in. Youth baseball players took the field pregame, playing catch alongside the new crop of 18 Express players here to start the year. Smoke billowed as hot dogs were on the grill, with another line developing in front of the concessions for that long-awaited ballgame grub.

“It’s just an extension of the holiday weekend,” Craig Christian said.

People were able to socialize — remember what that’s like? — as COVID-19 cases nationally near record lows.

Jean Hills was among those on the fan deck, enjoying the opportunity to spend time with her family and get together with a few co-workers and their families.

“For us as a family event, it’s nice to be able to be outside and enjoy the weather, see the boys of summer,” said Hills, who drove down from Rice Lake to catch the game.

Dave Hanson has been among the select few allowed to attend events since sports restarted in the area, given access thanks to his role as a public address announcer for UW-Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls High School. He’s seen firsthand what sports are like without the fans, without any added atmosphere.

While working for the Blugolds he’s experienced the starkest example of that. While nearly all prep events have allowed two spectators for every player, UW-Eau Claire’s winter sports were played completely fanless. When teams went into the locker rooms, often Hanson’s voice over the speakers was the only sound.

On Monday, he was one of an announced 1,460 at Carson Park, sitting right behind home plate, saying hello to many who walked by while preparing to score the game.

“We’ve had to adjust to so many different things,” Hanson said. “Now that some of the restrictions have been lifted with the masks being gone a little bit and everyone getting vaccinated, I think is big. I think that’s gotten more people out. I’ve noticed a lot more fans and people getting out, and that’s even at the high school level, the college level, wherever.”

That sentiment was backed up by others in attendance, who were also encouraged by loosening guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Masks are being encouraged by the Express for those who are unvaccinated, but those who are have been given the go-ahead to walk around Carson Park freely.

“That was a key step as far as us returning,” said Jody Christian, who sat with her husband Craig in the grandstand. “We wanted to be vaccinated before we went out in public too much.”

“I feel pretty comfortable being out here since I’m fully vaccinated,” said Nathan Studt, who sat in the fan deck alongside Hills. “I’m able to go out without a mask on comfortably now, so it’s really nice to be able to get out here.”