The Kwan family will be back inside the ballpark Thursday night. Where else would they want to be for opening day?

Nick Kwan, a 41-year-old Seattle resident, tried to watch his beloved Mariners on TV during the pandemic-shortened season last summer, but it just wasn’t the same experience. He longed to be back at T-Mobile Park, to watch baseball live, to connect with other die-hard fans around him.

He and his wife, Nicole, and his parents will finally get that chance when the Mariners begin their 2021 season against the San Francisco Giants at T-Mobile Park on Thursday night. It will be Seattle’s first pro sports venue open to the public since the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020.

“As a community, we need this,” said Kwan, whose family has been season-ticket holders since 1987. “We need to have something that unifies us versus all the other stuff we’re hearing about trying to tear us apart. I think this is a launching point for all of us to get back together again.”

Three weeks ago, local sports franchises were granted permission from state and county officials to reopen venues at no more than 25% capacity. The Mariners quickly sold out their allotted 9,000 tickets for Thursday’s opener — they are sold out for the entire three-game series against the Giants — and team officials are hopeful that they will be permitted to expand capacity gradually throughout the season as more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

To maintain social-distancing requirements, the Mariners will have seating pods, with each section carefully laid out so fans will be seated at least 6 feet away from each other.

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(Rich Boudet / The Seattle Times)
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Fans are required to wear masks while at T-Mobile Park and will only be allowed to eat and drink at their seats. Crews spent the past couple of weeks installing zip ties to shut tight thousands of seats that won’t be used, and the Mariners will have 40 “ambassadors” monitoring the crowd to ensure seat assignments and safety protocols are being followed.

“I often said last year that when you went out during batting practice, it was kind of normal,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Wednesday. “But as you walked out for the game to start and the national anthem was played and looked around, there’s nobody there. It just didn’t feel right. It just didn’t have that same electricity in the ballpark. I missed it. I know the players missed it. I’m really looking forward to it and, again, just very grateful to get the opportunity to get fans in the ballpark.”

Ellen Duernberger will be back in Section 116, Row 1, for Thursday’s game. Because she has been fully vaccinated, the 73-year-old Seattle resident said she has no hesitation about being in a crowd. Last weekend, she attended the Mariners’ drive-through rally for season-ticket holders — held in the team’s parking garage, with car windows shut — and said she appreciates the safety precautions the team has put in place.

“I feel pretty confident,” she said. “I really do think the Mariners are doing a good job with all this.”

Duernberger has been a season-ticket holder since 1991. For most games, she’s usually one of the first fans inside the ballpark — she likes to arrive early and walk around the entire stadium (“That’s how I get my 10,000 steps.”) She knows her old routine will have to be altered some this year, but she’s thrilled for the chance to reconnect with the other longtime season-ticket holders in Section 116.

“I think of it as my baseball family,” she said.

Kwan said most of his family has also received the COVID-19 vaccine. He’s mostly eager to get into the game and watch the Mariners again, but said he does have a touch of anxiety about being among a large crowd for the first time since the pandemic began.

“Sports is a huge part of our lives,” he said. “There’s a little apprehension about going (with a crowd). But I have a feeling whatever anxiety we have about going as family … is going to go away pretty quickly.”