Thousands will gather in Indianapolis this month for the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championships. While some welcome the economic boom, they are concerned about the crowds during the pandemic.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The brackets for March Madness are set – at least for the men. Now the matchups for the women’s tournament will be announced today. But for the first time in NCAA history, all of the men’s games are set to take place in and around one city – Indianapolis. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Samantha Horton reports on preparations.
SAMANTHA HORTON, BYLINE: The downtown Indianapolis Marriott is one of 4 hotels reserved for teams only. Today, employees walk through the lobby wearing red paper wristbands to show they have been cleared for work for the day. General Manager Michael Moros clearly remembers that scene a year ago when the Big Ten men’s basketball conference was halted.
MICHAEL MOROS: One of our Big Ten teams had just left to go to the stadium and they returned an hour later. The tournament had been canceled. And that was absolutely reality for us.
HORTON: A few days later his hotel was completely empty and shortly afterwards it was temporarily closed. Moros says the tournament will be the first time since the pandemic began that his hotel will be open for a full week.
MOROS: We took almost all of our employees on vacation. Lo and behold, here we are a year later, and I still have more than 300 employees who have not returned. It was difficult, but we see light at the end of the tunnel.
HORTON: The Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association reports that more than 95% of hotel workers were laid off in less than 48 hours. More than 200,000 Hoosier restaurant employees have also lost their jobs within a few days.
This year, each basketball court will accommodate spectators with a capacity of at least 25%. For Lucas Oil Stadium, the largest venue, that could mean up to 18,000 people watch a game. University of California, Berkeley epidemiologist John Swartzberg says while he doesn’t have overwhelming concerns about athletes and staff, he does worry about thousands of fans across the country who travel here to watch basketball days.
JOHN SWARTZBERG: Then you take Indianapolis for the finals and bring in people from all over the country who are going to eat out, go to bars and play indoor games – I hope nothing bad happens from that.
HORTON: Michael Boothe works downtown in a restaurant across from one of the six venues. According to Booth, his role as the host is to help enforce COVID-19 protocols with customers.
MICHAEL BOOTHE: I’m actually the one who makes sure that people sit about three feet apart, that we have space for everyone and that there are no parties with more than six people.
HORTON: Boothe is looking forward to earning a paycheck in the next few weeks. He is 18 years old, lives alone in a dormitory, and has COVID tested twice a week. While feeling relatively safe, he understands why others may not.
BOOTHE: Obviously there are other people at my work and in the city who are more at risk, people who could actually get sick and possibly even have serious complications from COVID-19.
HORTON: The March Madness games will culminate on Thursday. A championship game will take place here on April 5th.
For NPR News, I’m Samantha Horton in Indianapolis.
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