Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year on large events like conferences, sports and concerts. Like so many other industries, COVID-19 quarantines have devastated event-based businesses. The major sports leagues — the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League — have put games on hold indefinitely.
“Our revenue in essence has dropped to zero,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on a conference call last month. “That’s having a huge financial impact on the team business and the arena business.”
But while sports leagues are coming up with plans to play games without fans and some government officials consider opening up venues for concerts, an unfortunate realism is settling in among public health experts and business leaders: Large gatherings without strict social distancing shouldn’t come back until at least 2021.
Big events: ‘Not very high’ on list of concerns
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Large group events will likely be one of the last things to return to normal, said Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes. Concerts, sports, conferences and festivals may be entertaining, but they’re not essential to life. They’re also among the riskiest events because so many cheering people are tightly packed into arenas, making social distancing and wearing masks implausible, he said.
“It’s certainly not very high on my list of concerns as far as a return to normalcy, as much as I like a good Elton John concert,” said Bach. “Having gone to those events, I don’t know you’d keep people from exposing the virus to one another, and I don’t know how you could contact-trace there without a lot of intrusion.”
Only a vaccine, ubiquitous testing or vastly improved treatment will accelerate the pace of large gatherings without strict social distancing, said Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and an assistant professor at the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research. Even going back to school or large weddings could be problematic, he said. Most health experts predict a vaccine won’t be ready until 2021 at the earliest.
“I think people at home see cases are leveling off, it’s easy to say let’s open beaches, let’s open schools, let’s open stadiums,” said Khullar.
“The reality is in the hospital we see the real devastating effects of moving too quickly and not adhering to social distancing practices. The one thing I would emphasize is we’re not out of the woods. We’re not in a place where we can open up back yet. I hope we get there soon but if we rush this thing, we’ll be back where we were a month ago, and that would be a real shame.”
Employment data suggests the entertainment, arts and recreation industry is anticipating a prolonged slowdown. New job openings are down 53% from prequarantine levels, the biggest drop of any of the 21 industries tracked by CareerBuilder, the employment website. Job openings are typically a leading indicator illustrating executives don’t expect their industry will have an immediate economic recovery, said Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder.
White House advisor and public health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told The New York Times last week that bringing fans to an arena may simply be too complicated to attempt this year.
“I don’t want to make this conversation sound like it’s going to be an easy thing,” Fauci said. “We may not be able to pull this off. We’re going to have to see: Is it doable? Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, “We may have to go without this sport for this season.”
Venues across the country are taking different approaches to coronavirus. The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall have canceled their 2019–2020 seasons but are selling tickets for 2020-2021. Professional sports leagues are actively considering plans to play games without fans. Both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are investigating ways to return to action, though neither league’s executives have suggested the conditions exist to begin play.
South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization began its season this week without a crowd: Umpires and other baseball-related employees must wear masks and gloves at all times, everyone gets their temperature checked when entering and leaving the stadium, and the league has outlawed spitting and high-fives, according to The Washington Post.
If events resume, people might not show up
Some public officials aren’t taking “no” for an answer.
Governors of states including Missouri and Arkansas have decided to reopen large events and gatherings beginning this week. To help mitigate the spread of the virus, the states are ordering that seating must be “spaced out according to social distancing requirements.” The enforcement around distancing is vague, however. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office said “the state is working with local health authorities to support the order.” In Arkansas, “signs advise no entry if recent fever, symptoms or contact with positive patient,” according to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office.
Other states with comparable outbreak levels will surely take cues on how to proceed based on what happens in states that reopen. But simply allowing large gatherings doesn’t mean people will actually attend them.
SAP’s Qualtrics, the employee management software company, polled 2,000 U.S. residents at the end of April about how comfortable they were returning to different aspects of life. Attending a concert or sporting event topped the list of “most uncomfortable,” with about 80% of respondents saying they weren’t comfortable going to a live event.
“To get the country back to where we need to be, we need to get hearts and minds in the right spot,” said Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, who has advised clients, including the NBA, on returning to normal. “Take something like the NBA. If you’re thinking about reopening, none of it matters if you can’t figure out what’s going to make fans feel comfortable. Now’s not the time to guess.”
Even if league commissioners or public officials reopen arenas for conferences, concerts and sports, it’s dangerous to attend while new cases are still arising, said Dr. Ashish Jha, professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. People understand that.
“I don’t need my governor to tell me I should avoid getting sick and dying,” Jha said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed that large gatherings are inextricably tied to how quickly doctors can come up with effective treatment or immunization.
“It’s difficult to imagine us getting together in the thousands anytime soon, so I think we should be prepared for that this year,” Garcetti told CNN. “I think we all have never wanted science to work so quickly. But until there’s either a vaccine, some sort of pharmaceutical intervention, or herd immunity, the science is the science. And public health officials have made very clear we have miles and miles to walk before we can be back in those environments.”
Still, Cuban wouldn’t rule out getting fans back in seats sooner than others suggested. While he wouldn’t estimate a timeline, he also wouldn’t eliminate a late 2020 return for the NBA. “We have some amazing scientists,” Cuban said in an e-mail. “Unknown is unknown. The science will guide us.”
Say goodbye to large weddings, too
Large weddings, religious rites of passage and services, reunions and other big gatherings will likely be on hold until 2021, too, say health experts.
“If you want to have a wedding with 200 people, you are really risking things, prevaccine,” said Jha. “If you really, really wanted to have a wedding that size, you’d need fabulous amounts of testing and everyone would have to get the test the day you arrived at the wedding. Turnaround times would have to be that day and false negatives on tests would have to come way down.”
Event planners are already talking to couples and other party planners to invite small groups of people while webcasting the event to other guests, said Katrina Petersen, program director of National Association for Catering & Events Maine and an owner of a wedding venue. While this will undoubtedly hurt the event planning industry and disappoint couples who had hoped for dream weddings in 2020, small group events can become more luxurious and potentially help venues and vendors stay afloat, Petersen said.
“Maybe instead of 150 people, you have 50 or maybe you only have 20,” Petersen said. “Maybe the 20 who come get caviar and you livestream the wedding. Maybe each couple gets their own table and a really fantastic French wine. Are there ways to host those things on a much smaller scale while still being safe about it? People still want to get married.”