Mayor cautions against All-Star gatherings, while other events draw thousands downtown

This photo, taken at about 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 13 and provided to the AJC by a cheerleading parent, shows people congregating near food trucks inside the Georgia World Congress Center during that weekend's Cheersport Nationals competition. (Special)
This photo, taken at about 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 13 and provided to the AJC by a cheerleading parent, shows people congregating near food trucks inside the Georgia World Congress Center during that weekend's Cheersport Nationals competition. (Special)

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Business community gets welcome boost but public health experts worry

No fans will be allowed inside State Farm Arena for next month’s NBA All-Star game. Only a fraction of seats will be filled by hand-picked guests, who like the players must test negative for COVID-19 and use private transportation to reach Atlanta.

It’s not the game itself that has Atlanta’s mayor worried, though. It’s what’s could go on in the rest of the city. With highly-contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus spreading, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has pleaded with fans not to travel to Atlanta and asked promoters, clubs and bars not to hold All-Star tie-in parties.

But big events brimming with people have already returned to downtown Atlanta, welcomed by a business community still suffering in a depressed economy. The coming months promise ongoing clashes between the forces of public health and financial recovery, with Georgia having lax COVID regulations and a law that shields businesses from liability, but with vaccines for the masses not expected until late July.

On Valentine’s Day weekend, Atlanta hosted its highest-attended event since the start of the pandemic, when some 30,000 people from throughout the country arrived for a three-day cheerleading competition at the Georgia World Congress Center. The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates Cheersport Nationals’ economic impact at $19 million. Hotel occupancy was at 83% on Feb. 13, the highest since COVID-19 first upended the tourist industry a year ago.

The month before, GWCC hosted a girls volleyball tournament attended by nearly 10,000.

Dozens of volleyball courts covered a convention hall at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Lil’ Big South girls volleyball tournament in January. COVID safety precautions included a mask requirement and spaced seating. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Dozens of volleyball courts covered a convention hall at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Lil’ Big South girls volleyball tournament in January. COVID safety precautions included a mask requirement and spaced seating. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Kris Reinhard, a partner in Fifth Groups Restaurants, said the chain saw a 50% increase in sales during the weekend of Cheersport and about a 35% increase the weekend of the Lil’ Big South volleyball tournament. He credits GWCC’s resuming of large events for allowing the chain to bring back about 800 of the 1,000 employees furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It is a direct link to being able to get us back on track,” Reinhard said. “Sales are pretty low in general, as you can imagine. But then you get a bump like this, and it’s a huge hit.”

Upcoming events at GWCC include another girls volleyball tournament this weekend expected to draw 5,000 people, a dance competition March 18-21 expected to draw a few thousand, another cheerleading competition March 26-29 expected to draw up to 20,000, and a girls volleyball tournament Easter weekend with up to 60,000.

Conventions and trade shows are resuming, too, with a bridal and wedding expo set for late March and the Atlanta International Auto Show in mid-April.

GWCC has indoor spaces the size of multiple football fields and a ventilation system that keeps air constantly circulating. Spectators are limited during sports tournaments, required to sit spaced apart and to enter and exit in shifts to watch their teams. Masks are required to be worn by everyone except athletes while they’re competing.

“The governor has been very consistent in saying we have to protect lives and livelihoods,” said Jennifer LeMaster, GWCC’s chief administrative officer. “And tourism and hospitality is, in any given year, the second or third largest economy in the state.

“For us, figuring out how to do it safely in a new normal is sort of our charge,” LeMaster said.

But as with the NBA All-Star game, it’s the tangential gatherings that have public health experts worried — such as those around restaurants tables and in hotel rooms.

“Generally speaking, I would say that I think we really should be waiting until we have more of our population vaccinated before we do these sorts of events,” said Amber Schmidtke, a former Mercer University medical microbiology and immunology associate professor. “It would be ideal if we could have these events outdoors, but you still run into the same problems. Sports teams will need to do all of these side things together.”

Asked about the events at GWCC in light of her concerns about the NBA All-Star game, Mayor Bottoms released a brief statement through a spokesman: “The City has a mask mandate and we expect visitors to comply in wearing a mask at all times, follow CDC guidelines and exercise common sense.”

A few Atlanta Hawks fans watch their team take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 11. The NBA All-Star game will be held at the State Farm Arena on March 7, with expected attendance of 1,200 to 1,500. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
A few Atlanta Hawks fans watch their team take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 11. The NBA All-Star game will be held at the State Farm Arena on March 7, with expected attendance of 1,200 to 1,500. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Party time

It’s already apparent the mayor’s pleas aren’t being heeded, with private venues advertising more than two dozen parties and performances All-Star weekend, as if COVID-19 is no longer a thing.

For example, tickets start at $50 for the “NBA All-Star Trap Gala” on March 5, featuring rappers 2 Chainz and Gucci Mane, at the Atlanta nightclub Domaine. Tickets start at $30 for a “Carpe Diem Day Party” there on March 6. Lil Boosie will perform at downtown’s Paradise Atlanta on March 5, with free admission for women until 10:45 p.m. and for men until 10:30 p.m.

Attempts by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to reach event organizers weren’t successful. Bottoms is trying to avoid a scene like the one in Tampa after the Super Bowl victory by the home team Buccaneers when, despite a temporary mask mandate, crowds of maskless fans filled streets and bars.

While youth sports tournaments won’t be nearly as rambunctious, some issues that have cropped up at GWCC in recent months show how difficult it can be to keep people separated and wearing masks, even in a tightly controlled environment.

During the Cheersport competition, some parents complained to the AJC throughout Saturday of crowding in a holding area within the C building, where a row of food trucks was set up. Photos and videos they shared showed a sea of people, some with masks pulled down to their chins or under their noses.

LeMaster, of GWCC, later provided overhead surveillance photos that showed people more spaced out than what ground-level photos reflected. But she nevertheless said the food trucks would be moved outdoors on Sunday, which couldn’t be done Saturday because of rain.

Much of the problem, LeMaster said, was caused by parents arriving earlier than instructed for their daughters’ performances, bringing more family members inside than allowed and then socializing.

“It really is just sort of this social phenomenon that occurred,” LeMaster said, “where people wanted to catch up and they wanted to gather.”

An overhead surveillance photo provided by the Georgia World Congress Center shows a vast space inside C building during the Cheersport Nationals competition on Feb. 13. Some parents complained they felt uncomfortable because of clustering near the food trucks, as seen here. (Special)
An overhead surveillance photo provided by the Georgia World Congress Center shows a vast space inside C building during the Cheersport Nationals competition on Feb. 13. Some parents complained they felt uncomfortable because of clustering near the food trucks, as seen here. (Special)

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

GWCC invited the Georgia Department of Public Health to tour the event on Saturday. DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the department’s chief medical officer noted frequent cleaning of handrails, one-direction foot traffic control and mask enforcement.

“However, at an event with nearly 40K individuals, the risk for exposure to or transmission of COVID-19 is very high,” a written statement from DPH said. “The more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.”

Jeff and JoMarie Burnisky attended Cheerport to watch their 5th-grade daughter compete for ATA Cheer out of Cumming. The convention spaces are so large that they never felt uncomfortable, they said, not even when some people had masks pulled down.

They described moving along in stages, cordoned off by bicycle racks as they progressed from waiting areas to the stage then to the escalators and out the door.

“It was really well done,” Jeff Burnisky said. “It was literally like herding cattle.”

Upcoming events at the Georgia World Congress Center

Friday to Sunday: Capitol Hill Classic (girls volleyball)

Expected attendance: 5,000

March 18-21: Starpower Competition (dance)

Expected attendance: 1,000 to 2,000

March 26-29: One Up Championships (cheerleading)

Expected attendance: 15,000 to 20,000

March 27-28: Georgia Bridal & Wedding Expo

Expected attendance: 1,000

April 2-4: Big South Qualifier (girls volleyball)

Expected attendance: 50,000 to 60,000

April 14-18: Atlanta International Auto Show

Expected attendance: 25,000

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