INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis has celebrated its biggest event in the city since the start of the pandemic as it hosted the inaugural round of the NCAA Men’s Championship this weekend, but the celebrations surrounding the games are causing panic among public health experts.
A crowd of mostly young men gathered without masks for an outdoor viewing party at Bottleworks District. A disturbing security guard estimated that more than 2,000 people were crowded between two jumbo screens at either end of the building.
It is a stark contrast to what players, coaches, and support staff have faced under the NCAA Health and safety protocols. Saturday night The Virginia Commonwealth team’s first-round match against Oregon is canceled Three hours before you start. Several VCU players tested positive for COVID-19 in a 48-hour period.
Meanwhile, tournament participants gathered in crowded tents outside restaurants in the city center, as drinks poured in and flat-screen TVs broadcasted matches.
Most people said they felt safe, especially in games, where utilities are limited to 25% of their normal capacity or less. Busy downtown streets have attracted vendors who have seen little in the way of business over the past year, from pop-up clothing retailers to a Girl Scout squad selling donuts.
But gatherings are like this Like those at Bottleworks Concerned by public health experts, who fear they will undermine the strict health and safety protocols put in place by NCAA and Indianapolis officials to keep the tournament safe under unprecedented conditions.
“This epidemic is not over yet and everyone is acting as it is,” said Dr. Richard Feldman, the former state health commissioner. “There is a false sense of security.”
He said the danger did not necessarily lie in the NCAA games themselves. “The danger lies in what happens before and after the matches,” he said. “Parties. Crowded places. People congregate in larger groups. Most of them are young people who have not been immunized. This is very likely to lead to an increase again in the number of cases.”
But the desire to socialize as the city tries to pull out of hosting the entire men’s college basketball tournament has simply proven too powerful for many Hoosiers, even those aware of the potential risks of COVID-19.
Revelers at Bottleworks, for example, celebrated the inclusion of healthcare professionals.
Enrique Caraballo, 23, and Ciara Soltzer, 26, both nurses at local hospitals, said they were aware of the general health risks of the event, but were fully immunized so they decided to come anyway.
“I think people just want to get out of the house and back into the community again,” Caraballo said. “I mean, we spent a long time inside. I know that sounds ridiculous because we’re both nurses.”
“We’re like, ‘Get out, have fun, just don’t come to the hospital,’ Soltzer said.”
Realistically, it’s a bad idea, Caraballo said. “But we’re social creatures and we just want to get out and have fun. And I mean, it doesn’t make it right by any means, but it is just what it is.”
IndyStar, part of the USA TODAY Network, reached out to a Bottleworks spokesperson, but did not receive a response.
We sent inspectors
at Joint update for COVID-19 Held on March 11, Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Director Virginia Kane said they are confident the event will be safe – as long as visitors and residents act responsibly.
Hogsett said companies understand “in the short term, we really have to make some forays into that young group of college because the rally we’re starting to see is the long-term gains.”
When asked about the size and intensity of the crowds on Saturday, Mark Bode, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the city remains committed to the safety of residents and visitors.
“In addition to the protocols already in place across the city, we will continue to encourage the basics of wearing masks and social distancing,” he said in a written statement to IndyStar. “We are in regular contact with the Marion County Public Health Department as they monitor developments and use public health enforcement measures as necessary.”
Alia Wichner, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health, said officials are working with event organizers and partners in public health and safety to ensure the celebrations are held while taking appropriate safety measures. Enforcement measures have been stepped up, she said, adding, “After we were notified of a potential public health risk, we sent inspectors to make sure critical safety measures were followed.”
Gabriel Bosslett, associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, said that new coronavirus cases in Indiana have fallen below 1,000 per day, but some states, including the neighboring state of Michigan, have seen cases rise again.
He said: “If you are honest, I think we drop our guard very, very quickly.” “But who knows what will happen? I don’t think anyone knows.”
While hosting the NCAA Men’s Championships is a great opportunity to showcase the city, “The timing is really strange,” he said.
“We are really close, hopefully, to the end,” he said. “But I don’t know. Other nations around us are starting to rise. The uncertainty is totally stifling.”
A boost to local businesses
After a slow year, traffic to the bars and restaurants downtown saw a big boost in the early days of the tournament.
As of March 1, bars are allowed 50% bar seating instead of 25% and restaurants can handle 75% indoor seating, up from 50%. The external amplitude is still 100%.
The District Tap neighborhood saw a rush of customers on Friday starting around 11 am. The wait was an hour and a half – and stayed that way until late in the evening.
It’s like shooting a cannon in a good way, ”said General Manager Geoff Huron.
Huron said District Tap saw an increase in traffic from the volleyball tournaments held in January and February, but Friday’s March Madness dash appeared to be busy or over.
“Downtown Indianapolis is driven by conferences and sports and driven by events. Without any of these things happening for most of the past year, it was much slower,” he said. “We have seen our business triple in the past two months.”
IndyStar’s Alexandrea Boris and Tim Evans contributed to this story.