Early Warning: Behind The 'Gut Wrenching' Decision To Cancel The Arnold Fitness Expo

May 13, 2020

The decision to bar spectators from the Arnold Sports Festival started with a message from Houston. 

For the past 40 years, thousands of energy sector types have gathered in Houston for a major conference called CERAWeek. They come from all around the world, but on March 1, organizers canceled the event because of fears about the spread of the coronavirus.

A Houston public health official sent the announcement to Dr. Mysheika Roberts, Columbus’s health commissioner. She forwarded the message on to Mayor Andrew Ginther’s chief of staff. 

Her email was one line: “We need to chat about the Arnold.”

“You know, you go with your gut instinct, and I woke up the morning of March 2, and said I don’t feel comfortable having a large scale event like this in my community,” Roberts says now.

In hindsight, it was an easy call. But 10 weeks ago, the cancellation of the Arnold Fitness Expo was a sudden and extraordinary decision.

Ohio had yet to see a single confirmed case of COVID-19 when Ohio and Columbus officials decided to drastically pare back one of the city’s premier events. Public records obtained by WOSU help illuminate how officials arrived at what they call a “gut wrenching” decision.

"A Tremendous Pressure"

March 2 was a Monday, and the Arnold was set to kick off just two days later. Tens of thousands of fans would flood into the Greater Columbus Convention Center and the state fairgrounds.

Arnold Sports Festival at the Great Columbus Convention Center in 2018.
Credit Arnold Sports Festival / Facebook

For weeks, Roberts had been working on safety plans with the organizers. Monday afternoon, ahead of a conference call, Brent LaLonde from the Arnold told representatives at Experience Columbus, “Coronavirus is quickly turning into a PR crisis.”

Thousands had already signed an online petition demanding it be canceled. "The Arnold event will bring thousands people from over 80 countries to Columbus Ohio," the petition read. "This will significantly increase the risk of Coronavirus spreading in Ohio."

The city planned a Tuesday morning press conference to announce new safety measures, which included barring athletes from global coronavirus hotspots like China and Italy. Teams from Columbus Public Health and Mount Carmel Health System would screen athletes at the airport, at registration, and at each event.

The convention center would have hand sanitizers every 20 feet. Mount Carmel Health System was ready to treat COVID-19 patients.

Still, minutes before the press conference, Gov. Mike DeWine began having misgivings.

“As I recall, I called the mayor and said, 'Hey, I’m rethinking this thing. I think you and I need to talk some more about this, we need to really kind of take a deep look at this,'" DeWine says. "And I suspect that’s when he canceled the press conference.”

The mayor, the governor, their staffs and their public health teams spent hours that Tuesday in a conference room going over the situation. They knew the economic cost: the Arnold generates $53 million for the local economy every year.

At the time, other big spring events around the country were still a go, including the South by Southwest music festival and big trade shows in Orlando, Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Roberts and Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton laid out the public health case. Roberts says she knew the stakes were high for the governor and the mayor.

“You know, they had that additional weight on them, so I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to provide my scientific expertise and to make sure that it was accurate and right, because they were making decision based on what Dr. Acton and I thought from a public health standpoint,” Roberts says.

Mayor Andrew Ginther and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at a press conference March 3, 2020, announcing the cancellation of the Arnold Sports Expo.
Credit Andy Chow / Statehouse News Bureau

While they worried about athletes arriving from countries already experiencing community spread, it became apparent that large crowds were the greater issue.

Right away, Ginther said, the Arnold Expo, a large trade show connected with the competition, looked like too great a risk.

“Now, initially what the governor and I were going to do were to issue separate orders,” Ginther explains. “CPH would issue orders for those within the jurisdiction of Columbus and CPH, and the state would issue orders for the fairgrounds and the Expo Center that are clearly under the purview of the governor.”

But Ginther says he and the governor stepped out into the hall, and after a brief conversation determined the better course was to speak with one voice.

"A No-Brainer"

DeWine and Ginther announced their decision at a Tuesday night press conference

“We have all decided to move forward with the athlete competition at the Arnold classic,” DeWine told reporters, “but not to allow spectators or the trade show to continue.”

They held up a cell phone so the festival’s namesake, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, could lend his support and speak to reporters as well. He said organizers didn't want to put people at risk.

Fans wait in line for tickets at the Arnold Sports Festival, despite state officials prohibiting spectators for most events.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

The next day, however, Schwarzenegger sent a letter attempting to reverse course and allow spectators to attend the events. He argued that other events in Ohio had no such restrictions, including then-scheduled games for March Madness, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

"There is no explanation to allow all these other events with 20,000 fans to continue while not allowing us to sell tickets to a few thousand sports fans to watch our various different sports," he wrote.

Daniel Ketchell, Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, said Wednesday that “our plan is to have spectators at the event, barring some type of emergency order."

DeWine and Ginther held their ground. In a letter Thursday, the two officials warned Arnold organizers to abide by the initial agreement.

"In the event that organizers fail to comply with our agreement, we stand ready to take appropriate action under Ohio law," they wrote.

That day, Acton issued a public health order prohibiting spectators at all but eight of the festival's events.

“You second guess yourself, I second guess myself many, many times,” DeWine now says of the decision, adding with a chuckle, “it was physically, you know, just tough."

DeWine believes they made the right call. He says his kids’ and grandkids’ experience in track and field made him sensitive to the perspective of athletes.

In the weeks to come, the middle course they landed on became a model for NCAA and high school competitions that were eventually canceled as well.

DeWine and Ginther both credit their public health officials, and highlight an argument about hindsight that Acton and Roberts made during their deliberations.

“This is a really tough decision today, but a week or two from now it will look like a no-brainer,” Ginther recalls the doctors telling them. “And that—I’ve heard, and been reminded of, and confirmed over, and over, and over again.”