OAKLAND (CBS SF/AP) — For the first time since Oct 2019, the Oakland Athletics will open the 2021 season Thursday night with as many as 12,000 actual fans in the stands and not just in front of row after row of photo cutouts and canned audience sounds blaring over the loud speakers.

“No cardboard cutouts. Not this year! That was so 2020! We’re done with that, we’re focused on real live bodies, real fans,” A’s president Dave Kaval told KPIX 5.

In a nationally televised game, the A’s will send Chris Bassitt to the mound to square off against Houston ace Zack Greinke. Last season, Oakland was eliminated by the Astros from the 2020 postseason.

A's fans gather outside the Oakland Coliseum ahead of the home opener on April 1, 2021. (CBS)

A’s fans gather outside the Oakland Coliseum ahead of the home opener on April 1, 2021. (CBS)

The A’s organization has made many changes inside the Coliseum for the 2021 season.

“A lot of the seats are zip tied shut. So if people say, ‘I can’t sit in my regular seat.’ It’s because they’re zip tied. So you’ll have pods of two and four,” Kaval explained.

“The concessions operation on the concourse is all closed, so you can’t actually walk up to anything. So it’s all via your phone,” the team president went on to say.

With his signature walking bat in hand, and even with a bad back, Michael Puncsak is ready to work again during A’s games.

“It was basically a lockdown and having to be on Facebook and Twitter 25 hours a day,” said Puncsak, who has been working security for nearly 20 years.

“Last year was like a bad Stephen King novel. Having all those cardboard cutouts was very eerie,” Puncsak told KPIX 5.

The A’s play in Alameda County which is currently in the Orange Tier and will be able to put as many as 12,000 socially distanced fans in the stands at the RingCentral Coliseum which has a capacity of 63,132.

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“Baseball fans bring so much energy to the park, and our game is so much better with that passion in the stands,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manred wrote in an open letter to fans. “We are hopeful that hearing the sounds of a ballgame in-person represents important progress towards a 2021 that looks and feels closer to normalcy.”

While it’s a step toward normalcy, there will be plenty of reminders that the region is still dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Major League Baseball officials were also strongly encouraging players to get vaccinated.

On Monday, the league and the player’s union informed clubs that MLB will relax certain health and safety protocols if vaccination goals are met, according to a source with knowledge of the agreement.

Clubs with 85% of their Tier 1 individuals fully vaccinated — which includes players, coaches, and trainers — should expect less restrictive Covid-19 protocols, the source said.

Vaccinated players would not have to wear masks in dugouts or bullpens and will not be required to wear tracking devices in team facilities, according to ESPN and USA Today, citing a league-wide memo sent to teams on Monday.

Teams that reach the 85% vaccination goal could also reintroduce traditional locker room amenities like saunas, whirlpools and pool tables.

Here’s a rundown of the COVID-19 measures in place for Thursday night’s game.

  • The North Parking Lot will be closed — it currently is being used as a mass vaccination site. Fans will need to use the South Parking Lot accessible only off the Hegenberger Rd. exit. Parking will be $30 (no cash accepted) and no tailgating is allowed.
  • Masks must be worn once fans enter the Coliseum. Fans must also keep six feet from others outside their pods. All pods are situated six feet from each other.
  • Concessions will be sold and fans can remove masks while eating and drinking. All purchases in the ballpark will be contactless and cashless. Debit cards will be available for purchase using cash at a limited number of locations inside the stadium.
  • Mobile concessions: No concourse concessions will be available to begin the season. Fans can order limited concession offerings on their mobile devices to be delivered directly to their seats.
  • There will be no paper tickets. All tickets will be virtually scanned. You will need to download the MLB Ballpark App and get ready to show the virtual ticket at the gates. Walk-up tickets will not be available.
  • The first two rows of the ballpark around the lower bowl will be roped out to protect the players from exposures. There are no autographs allowed.
  • There will be access to the Coliseum for fans taking BART to the game.
  • Tickets sales will be restricted to California residents only.

After winning their first division title in seven years, the A’s took some serious hits this offseason with Marcus Semien leaving to sign a one-year deal in Toronto after not getting a qualifying offer from Oakland and star closer Liam Hendriks signing with the White Sox.

Oakland acquired Elvis Andrus from the Texas Rangers to replace Semien at shortstop, but the 32-year-old batted just .194 in limited time last season.

Right-handed pitcher Trevor Rosenthal was signed to take over as closer as part of what should be a very strong bullpen.

There are still plenty of key pieces sticking around in Oakland led by Matt Chapman and Matt Olson at the corner infield spots along with a young rotation anchored by Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea and Jesús Luzardo.

A.J. Puk is coming off shoulder surgery but also could contribute.

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.