Large spectator events may be a long way off

The River of Lights holiday display at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden draws tens of thousands of visitors annually. Although the state is moving ahead with a plan to gradually reopen, the governor has said that large spectator events may not return for many months. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Sports stadiums, concert halls and conference centers could remain empty in New Mexico for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus pandemic, posing planning headaches and financial questions as the state enters the summer months.

Many venues, including the Santa Fe Opera, have already canceled their seasons or events for this year, and others could be scrapped in the coming weeks. A Cabinet secretary in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration recently said it could be at least a year before gatherings of 100 people or more are allowed.

“I know a lot of events have been canceled this year,” Tourism Secretary Jen Schroer said during a recent webinar on reopening the state’s hospitality industry. “We may not have the ability to do a mass gathering until we have a vaccine or herd immunity. It could be a year or 18 months.”

Although Lujan Grisham’s administration has outlined a plan for a gradual reopening of the state’s economy based on whether the state meets certain COVID-19 control criteria, the governor has said that large spectator events will probably be among the last events to come back.

During a recent news conference, one of the top health officials in the governor’s Cabinet sounded a skeptical tone when asked specifically about high school and collegiate athletic events.

“I can’t answer when, but it is going to take some amazing creativity to figure out how to let those things to happen, contact sports in particular,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.

He also said New Mexico would likely need to have a 0.1 virus spread rate for large gatherings to be allowed to happen, citing the risk of disease outbreaks posed by such events.

The spread rate, which measures how many other people are infected by each individual who tests positive for COVID-19, had decreased in recent weeks but was at 1.09, late last week.

“I personally think that having large groups of people in a single location, particularly if they’re close together and yelling, screaming and singing, as often happens at collegiate football games … that’s dangerous,” Scrase said.

University of New Mexico running back Tyrone Owens, left, strides into the end zone for a touchdown in 2018. UNM football coach Danny Gonzales believes there will be a college football season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Ban at UNM?

Despite a pessimistic scenario outlined by state officials recently, UNM football coach Danny Gonzales said he believes there will be a college football season. He is planning for UNM football players to start voluntary workouts within the next two weeks, and he hopes to have clearance for the team to start practicing by mid-July.

The Lobos are scheduled to open the season Aug. 29 against Idaho State at Dreamstyle Stadium.

“We need something to get us together. We need it big time. Football serves a lot of purpose for a lot of people,” Gonales said. “It gives people something to look forward to, something to cheer on. There are a lot of positives that football brings.”

The musical “Hamilton” is scheduled for Popejoy Hall next year. Popejoy is considering
alternative dates for many productions in the 2020-2021 season. (Courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Beyond athletics

The ramifications of a lengthy ban on large gatherings extend far beyond sports.

At UNM alone, there would be empty or sparsely populated lecture halls and performance halls through the entire 2020-2021 school year, altering the college experience.

The school is preparing for a hybrid fall term that would have as much remote instruction as possible with limited in-person instruction.

Provost James Holloway told the Journal in an email that while the university is planning for the long term, it is careful not to lock into plans too early because so much can change.

“It might be that gatherings of over 100 are not wise for a year or two, and that will be a loss for society as a whole. We are social beings and draw great strength and energy from each other. But that is a challenge we can all manage,” he said. “I worry less about not having large lecture halls filled than I do about not being able to have the social gatherings that create and cement groups of people into creative communities.”

He said some critical college experiences must come from working closely with people.

“Some are easy to see, such as those requiring access to specific special facilities like laboratories or maker spaces,” he wrote in a letter sent across campus. “Others are slightly more subtle, such as the learning that comes within a string quartet, where feeling the presence and actions of the other members is key to the artistic expression.”

UNM’s Center for the Arts is a venue with multiple theaters, including Popejoy Hall, that host performances large and small and by touring professionals and student ensembles. All have been canceled until at least September.

Still, the cultural juggernaut “Hamilton” is expected to be a major draw at Popejoy in 2021.

“We have been preparing to bring ‘Hamilton’ to Popejoy Hall for a number of years,” said Tom Tkach, Popejoy director.

Popejoy is moving forward with both the renewal of current subscribers, as well as a new subscription campaign, in the hopes that the 2020-2021 season will happen.

“In light of our current situation, and some possibility that it will not be safe to open Popejoy, we have been planning alternative dates for many of our productions in the 2020-2021 season,” Tkach said. “The University of New Mexico has been supportive of the continued operations of Popejoy Hall in these uncertain times including the retention of all full-time employees. Popejoy’s dedicated staff, volunteers and board continue to plan for a brighter future when Popejoy will reopen.”

Karen Fleetwood clears a crowd so a balloon can launch during a mass ascension at the Balloon Fiesta in 2019. Traditional mass ascensions may not happen in 2020. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Very last concern’

It will be some time before local concert venues hold a recognizable show, said Joe Anderson, who owns the Launchpad, Sunshine Theater and El Rey Theater.

He said the pandemic will limit capacity at venues and create face mask requirements. It will also change the musicians’ touring schedules.

“No one knows for sure how the future of national touring will unfurl,” Anderson said. “And, sad to say, mass gatherings are most likely the very last concern for those making the decisions.”

Other large events in the city, such as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, River of Lights and minor league baseball games, remain uncertain.

The Balloon Fiesta, for example, may not have traditional mass ascensions. Organizers are looking at multiple options, including balloon races and smaller launches from different sites.

At the ballpark, the minor league season this year remains in limbo. The league hasn’t made an official announcement regarding a baseball season. But Isotopes general manager John Traub has said that playing in an empty stadium is not planned for the team.

New Mexico United, meanwhile, announced last week that its season would be resuming July 11. To what extent soccer fans will be able to attend remains up in the air.

State Fair officials are also planning to move forward with the September event, although it’s too early to know what it will look like.

“We are closely monitoring the situation as it pertains to mass gatherings, and will adjust our plans accordingly, always putting the health, safety and well-being of our guests and community first,” said Wyndham Kemsley, a spokesman for the State Fair.

Albuquerque tourism officials also have an optimistic outlook on large gatherings.

“We’ve been working very closely with our industry partners as they gear up for the continued reopening of our economy, and they are committed to providing safe and responsible experiences,” Visit Albuquerque President and CEO Tania Armenta said in a statement. “We remain optimistic that this commitment to safe measures and the continued innovation across the country will provide opportunities for gatherings to take place sooner rather than later.”

Virus still spreading

New Mexico has reported 8,940 confirmed cases, with 396 deaths as of Sunday, with more than half of the cases originating in McKinley and San Juan counties, in the northwestern corner of the state.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Meanwhile, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said it’s too early to provide a specific timeline for when large gatherings will be allowed, but she backed up the tourism secretary’s remarks.

“It’s frankly too early to say with any certainty what fall and winter events will look like,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal last week.

“We’re following this disease day to day,” Sackett added. “In short, the virus decides the timeline, and the secretary’s comment aligns with the administration’s thinking in that large gatherings are not likely to be safe for a long time.”

Journal assistant sports editor Steve Virgen contributed to this story.

 

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