The state of Ohio has issued a public health order prohibiting most spectators at this week's Arnold Sports Festival. Event organizers say they will comply with the restrictions.
Thursday's directive from the Ohio Department of Health cited an "imminent threat with a high probability of widespread exposure to COVID-19." State officials issued the order after Arnold organizers announced plans to allow fans at this week's competitions, contradicting previous statements.
Gov. Mike DeWine said their goal was to delay the spread of the novel coronavirus, and that the Arnold is a "unique situation" compared to other scheduled events in the state.
"It became clear in the last hour that this could only be accomplished through an order," DeWine said at a press conference Thursday morning.
In the order, Health Department director Amy Acton prohibited the festival from allowing the public to attend events at the Greater Columbus Convention center, Ohio Expo Center or the Hyatt Regency Columbus.
Spectators will still be permitted at fitness, physique, and strongman finals on Friday and Saturday. The parents of young athletes will also be allowed to attend.
Acton said they reviewed the Arnold's precautionary measures and plans to handle coronavirus fears, and decided that limiting spectators was the best option.
"A large gathering of this type, which puts thousands of people shoulder to shoulder in a confined space, increases the risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19," Acton wrote.
I would say things are very...messy down at The Arnold. These folks are waiting in line to buy tickets to watch the event because last night they heard they’d be able to. Today I told them about @ketch’s announcement. They had no idea. pic.twitter.com/g7qMAaplWW
— Paige Southwick Pfleger (@PaigePfleger) March 5, 2020
Earlier this week, state and local officials had announced plans to limit the annual festival and cancel the Arnold Fitness Expo. The Arnold and its connected events bring into Columbus over 22,000 athletes and 200,000 fans from more than 80 nations.
DeWine and state health officials cited new disease-prevention guidance on mass gatherings from the CDC. However, Arnold organizers appeared to reverse course the next day.
“Our plan is to have spectators at the event, barring some type of emergency order," said Daniel Ketchell, Arnold Swarzenegger’s chief of staff, on Wednesday.
The conflicting messages seemed to cause confusion among attendees. As events opened on Thursday morning, a long line of people stretched into the Greater Columbus Convention Center, unaware of the latest restrictions.
Some spectators have even been allowed into convention halls where competitions are taking place, WOSU's Paige Pfleger reports.
Ketchell said at a press conference Thursday that while organizers will cooperate with the directive, they feel "unfairly targeted" by the state.
He says they only had about 30 minutes to make the original decision to limit spectators.
“We did not have all of the information in front of us,” Ketchell said. “We did not realize that basketball games are still continuing as planned. Hockey games are still continuing as planned. Other conventions are still continuing as planned.”
In a letter to DeWine and Ginther, Schwarzenegger said that when the festival agreed to limit spectators, he was unaware that other events in Ohio had no such restrictions. He cited the upcoming March Madness events and regularly scheduled Cleveland Cavaliers and Columbus Blue Jackets games.
"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," wrote Schwarzenegger.
The Arnold is by far the largest event at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, and city officials say that other events don't draw as diverse or concentrated a crowd.
In a joint letter to Arnold organizers Wednesday night, DeWine and Ginther painted a very different picture of those negotiations.
“We met with your staff (Wednesday) to consider your revised request to consider allowing spectators in absence of the Expo, and to consider additional information provided by your staff. After consideration of this information, we remain gravely concerned that the event still poses a unique and unacceptable risk for the spread of COVID-19 for guests and the community,” the statement says.
It goes on to say, “In the event that organizers fail to comply with our agreement, we stand ready to take appropriate action under Ohio law to protect the health and safety of the residents of the State of Ohio and our guests.”
Coronavirus In Ohio
The Arnold Fitness Expo is thought to be the country's largest mass gathering to be canceled because of emerging concerns about the novel coronavirus.
No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed yet in Ohio. So far seven patients have tested negative, with another Ohioan currently under investigation. However, Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton cautioned that the disease will likely spread to Ohio eventually.
At least 11 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the U.S. Most of those came from Washington state.
The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick.