There was a noticeable mood of optimism at the tailgate outside of the Mercedes Benz Stadium on Saturday in Atlanta, where supporters groups of the city's soccer team Atlanta United had gathered prior to their game against Montreal. 

Walking through the parking lot, where fans were kicking soccer balls, celebrating, and drinking beers, it would be easy to imagine it was a time before the COVID-19 pandemic began — a scene strikingly different from that of only a few months ago when the stadium was being used for COVID-19 testing and early voting in a contentious presidential election.

As the CDC has relaxed guidelines for mask wearing for those fully vaccinated and America's infection rate has plummeted, fans returned with a sense that the worst could possibly be behind them.

"I love all those people a lot, and it's crazy because it's like we haven't been able to do anything like this in so long and it means a lot to these people and it means a lot to me," United fan Jeff Acana said. "And, you know, there are some risks involved. I completely understand them, but I've missed these people so much."

Caitlyn Meyer was one of a few fans seen wearing a mask at the tailgate. She said that she preferred to play it safe.

"We've been wearing masks for a year," she said. "I'm fully vaccinated at this point and obviously we just got the guidance that we don't need to wear masks. However, since we've been wearing them for a year at this point, it's hard to take them off and I feel more comfortable with them on."

For fan Vera Ziegler, it's a return to a sense of normalcy that was sorely missed.

"We just want the energy to be right; not just for the club, but for the fans as well," she said. "We're just thinking about how, you know, the energy needs to be there today, so we are all excited. I'm so excited. It's just been such a fellowship to see so many people in the community back together again."

Steve Cannon, CEO of AMB Group, which manages the stadium, said that factors were right for a return to a full-capacity at the stadium.

"We talk to our fans very regularly and we've been monitoring them really for the last year and a half, how they feel about coming back," Cannon said. "So number one — what's our fan demand? That was very important. The other is, what is the CDC saying? So we've been monitoring that. Adjusting our protocols to reflect that."

Cannon said he felt that the return of fans to the stadium marked a moment of celebration in the fight against COVID-19.

"I can just feel the energy," he said. "Atlanta United is such important part of their life and it's been missing for the last year and-a-half. So there's an energy here that we couldn't be more excited about."

Cannon estimated nearly 41,000 people attended the match, a record number for an event in the COVID-19 era. The official attendance number was 40,116.

Atlanta United went on to win the game against Montreal in a 1-0 victory. Cannon said that they plan to continue moving forward with the plan to have the stadium at full capacity in future games unless indications from the CDC and other factors begin to recommend against it.