NBA Returns as Local Officials Clash With Businesses Over Events

Big sports tournaments and conventions are coming back in the South where there are fewer Covid-19 restrictions, but that’s pitting government leaders against local businesses.

The National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game is happening this weekend in Atlanta but the city’s mayor is telling people to stay away -- frustrating local restaurateurs and hoteliers. In San Antonio, the annual rodeo has returned even though the county’s top official opposed it. Across the region, youth sports tournaments are popping up on convention hall calendars and also prompting fears of the virus spreading.

Event organizers in the South are booking contracts again in part because their states have more lenient restrictions on mass gatherings. Nearly 80% of venues in states like Georgia, Texas and Florida reported being open for events in December, compared with 15% in the Northeast and Northwest, according to a survey of 155 businesses by the International Association of Venue Managers.

NBA Returns as Local Officials Clash With Businesses Over Events

Organizers are advertising new safety protocols, including mask requirements, at the same time vaccinations are accelerating. But some local officials are still worried about hosting the next potential super-spreader. Business leaders in the region are complaining this is sending mixed messages to attendees and threatening the events industry’s much-needed rebound.

“The headline that caught my ear was Atlanta was in the running for the All-Star Game,” said Todd Schneider, whose company owns that city’s stand-alone Ferris wheel, SkyView Atlanta. “Next I hear the mayor say, ‘But don’t come.’ That’s painful.”

Any help for companies like Schneider’s can’t come soon enough after the live events sector collapsed last year and has badly trailed the broader U.S. recovery. While economists are forecasting the U.S. economy to grow 4.9% this year on strong retail sales and other indicators, the moribund business-to-business trade show industry is still expected to be down 57% from pre-pandemic levels, according to a broad index of metrics including revenue.

Youth Sports

Youth sports are leading the way in event resurgences as parents of cheerleaders, volleyball players and wrestlers set aside Covid-19 fears in favor of returning life to normal.

For example, seven out of the ten shows that are booked at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center between February and April are youth sports or dance competitions.

The comeback is providing a much-appreciated boost for local tourism. A cheerleading competition in downtown Atlanta in mid-February, with more than 30,000 participants, filled more than 80% of local hotel rooms, according to the event sponsors. The gathering also bolstered business at local attractions like Schneider’s Ferris wheel, where ticket sales spiked 50%.

At the same time, civic and health officials are increasingly worried about the resumption of mass gatherings, even if their state governments permit them.

In Texas last month, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, that county’s top administrator, asked the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo to delay its event. He feared spreading the virus among the 56,000 people expected to attend.

While the carnival was scrapped, organizers still went ahead with the event but limited attendance and required masks. Since then, Texas has relaxed its rules amid declining hospitalization and infection rates, allowing all businesses to open at 100% capacity starting March 10.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has urged people not to come to Atlanta for the NBA’s All-Star Game.

“Under normal circumstances, we would be extremely grateful for the opportunity to host the NBA All-Star game, but this is not a typical year,” Bottoms said in an email.

NBA Returns as Local Officials Clash With Businesses Over Events

The increase in mass events spooked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enough to update their guidance. The agency was concerned by the recent rise in gatherings and as a result, specified Americans shouldn’t socialize with people outside their household, said CDC official Erin Sauber-Schatz.

And there’s evidence people are still getting sick. A January CDC report linked two Florida wrestling tournaments to 38 cases of Covid-19 among participants and 41 additional cases among their contacts. Youth hockey tournaments have also been linked to scattered outbreaks.

Al Kidd, chief executive of the Sports Events and Tourism Association, said his group hasn’t done detailed research on transmission rates during tournaments and he’s only heard sporadic anecdotes about small numbers of infections.

Complicating matters: event organizers are flummoxed by the different regulations around the nation. Georgia has no limit to the size of gatherings as long as organizers enforce social distancing and other protocols. Meantime, New York has allowed arenas to reopen, but seating is capped at 10%.

Government officials sending inconsistent messages isn’t helping either, according to some local business leaders.

“Sometimes it’s the events that get all the attention where people say, ‘Wait a minute, people are gathering?’ ” said Brad Mayne, president of the International Association of Venue Managers in Texas. Other events happen without any dispute, he said. “It’s not like these things are being done in the cover of darkness.”

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