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Fort Worth has COVID plan for National Finals Rodeo. Experts say infections are likely

November 25,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Luke Ranker here.

Fort Worth officials are confident that a number of precautions, including strict mask enforcement, at events related to the National Finals Rodeo will curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and keep people safe.

As coronavirus cases rise in Texas and nationally, public health experts say short of not holding any events or testing every person, nothing will prevent infections when thousands of people are expected in the Fort Worth area. The 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, scheduled for Dec. 3-12 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, has sold out the roughly 14,500 seat occupancy limit set for the stadium each night.

The “Superbowl of Rodeos” comes a week after Thanksgiving, a holiday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja have said should have been spent at home, not traveling to see friends and family.

Experts told the Star-Telegram earlier this month the rodeo could lead to a number of smaller “super-spreader” events outside the rodeo itself where a few infected people lead to outbreaks of COVID-19. Officials from the city of Fort Worth and Visit Fort Worth say they’re prepared to mitigate the spread, including stockpiling more than 600,000 masks to provide to visitors. Rodeo fans are expected across Fort Worth at events downtown, in the Cultural District and at the Stockyards.

“We’re as prepared as any community can be to host an event of this caliber,” said Mike Crum, the city’s public events director. “There is every opportunity to have an event that will put a lot of money in this community and have our visitors go home safe and healthy.”

Still, the rate of infections are dangerously high, said Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University-Texarkana virologist. About 1% to 3% of the population is infected with COVID-19, he said. On the low end, that would mean around 100 of the expected 10,000 daily visitors to the Fort Worth Convention Center could be infected. Based on the rate of infection, he estimated a tenfold infection rate.

“If you have 100 people walking in with an infection, which is about right, you’d expect about 1,000 people walking out with an infection,” he said.

Diane Cervantes, director of HSC Fort Worth’s epidemiology department, said she believed the city had in place “good measures” to prevent viral transmission. The protocols, which include masks mandates, frequent cleaning and hand sanitizer, work together to limit contact with the virus.

“There’s no one magic measure that’s going to help, you have to layer and the more layers, the better,” she said. “These are all great things.”

Tarrant County reported 1,710 new COVID-19 cases and five deaths Tuesday.

As of Monday, Tarrant County had 1,144 available hospital beds and 3,875 occupied beds, making the occupancy rate 77%. Confirmed COVID-19 patients took up 778 beds, which was 20% of the occupied beds and 16% of total beds, according to data from the Tarrant County website.

A report from the University of North Texas’ Health Science Center released last week predicted Dallas and Tarrant County hospitals will likely reach maximum capacity in the next 30 days. The coronavirus pandemic is only going to worsen over the holiday season, and Dallas-Fort Worth could see “catastrophic effects” unless something is done to reverse the trend, according to the report from Rajesh R. Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the HSC School of Public Health.

Taneja, the county public health director, told the Star-Telegram he has concerns about the rodeo given rising coronavirus caseload and the risk the comes with large gatherings of any kind.

“When you bring a lot of people together, you’re bound to have some folks that show up either symptomatic or asymptomatic,” he said.

Anyone who has paid attention to Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who is recovering from COVID-19, since March can probably hear her say it: “Y’all wear a mask.”

That’ll be the focus for National Finals Rodeo events in Arlington and in Fort Worth.

Statewide mandates require masks be worn in businesses, bars and restaurants when people are not seated to eat or drink. The city will enforce masks at the Fort Worth Convention Center and Will Rogers Memorial Center for events both inside and outside. Anyone not wearing a mask will be asked to put one on or asked to leave, though Crum said that option would be a “last resort.”

Ford Motor Co. donated 500,000 surgical-style masks, and the city has allocated another 100,000 to be available for those who don’t have their own. Some of these masks have already been given to businesses. Another batch of gators with Fort Worth and National Finals Rodeo brands will also be available.

Ambassadors will roam the convention halls, downtown and the Stockyards passing out masks along with information about Fort Worth.

“We’re going to have roving hospitality teams who are there to offer you a smile and reminder to put your mask on,” Crum said.

Other measures include:

▪ Temperature checks: Visitors to the Fort Worth Convention Center, Will Rogers Center and the Cowtown Coliseum will be checked for temperatures at or above 100.4 degrees. Those with high temperatures will have to wait 15 minutes to be rechecked. If the temperature remains high they will not be allowed in. Some private businesses may also be checking temperatures.

▪ Hand sanitizer: The convention center will have more than 80 sanitizer stations while the Will Rogers Memorial Center will have more than 100.

▪ Sanitation: High-touch areas in public buildings will be cleaned frequently, including every two hours at the convention and Will Rogers centers. Rangers officials told the Star-Telegram last month Globe Life Field will be disinfected after each event, and there will be frequent cleaning of surfaces throughout the day.

▪ Occupancy: Event centers will be limited to 50% capacity. Restaurants may operate at 75% capacity, though restrictions are subject to change depending on hospital bed availability.

The public events department applied for Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s Star Accreditation, which provides facilities with comprehensive protocols for cleaning, disinfecting and infectious disease prevention. Based on the guidelines, city was staff trained on new equipment purchased for cleaning and disinfecting, the city said.

Besides the Cowboy Christmas at the Convention Center and events at Will Rogers, Stockyards Heritage Development and Cowtown Coliseum will host a number of activities, including Cowboy Carnival, Cowboy Channel Tailgate, Hooey Fest and others. A sanitation team will also routinely clean high-traffic areas before, during, and after operating hours at the coliseum and throughout Mule Alley.

Omni Fort Worth Hotel, host to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Convention, will carry out a new safety initiative based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

For weeks police, fire and code compliance officers, along with Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission inspectors, have conducted patrols of restaurants and bars to enforce occupancy and mask requirements. Those patrols focused on the Stockyards, a popular destination for the rodeo crowd where mask wearing has been lacking, and the West 7th District, popular with TCU students where mask wearing has improved, according to a city report.

Brandon Bennett, code compliance director, said the city likely wouldn’t be heavy handed on enforcement the week of the rodeo, but would still be on the lookout for violations.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association did not respond to an email requesting details about COVID protection plans for rodeo contestants.

Those who come to Fort Worth will have access to the city’s free saliva coronavirus test, which usually takes about two days to process. Organizers have discussed squiring some rapid tests, but plans have not been finalized.

Neuman said he was skeptical.

While sanitizing and hand washing is good for public health in general, the coronavirus is most likely to be spread through airborne particles, making sanitizer less effective. There is little to no evidence frequently cleaning surfaces is effective, he said.

Masks are most effective when everyone wears one all the time, he said. But in a situation where there may be food or drink, masks are less likely to stay on.

Then there’s the sheer number of people.

At 75% capacity, the Fort Worth Convention Center could host 16,000 inside, but Visit Fort Worth estimates the number will be closer to 10,000 a day. The rodeo and its related events brought in roughly 20,000 Las Vegas, and organizers are expecting half that for the Fort Worth area.

The National Finals Rodeo relocated from Las Vegas after restrictions limited event attendance.

“I don’t like it,” Neuman said of the number of people expected.

Cervantes said the highest risk for infection may not be at large events like the rodeo itself or the Convention Center. Instead the spread is likely when groups get together before or after an event to socialize, she said.

She warned that even when people don’t seem symptomatic, they could be carrying the virus. A fever of 100.4 would likely accompany other, more severe symptoms.

“That’s one of the reasons this virus is so successful, because people who are most infectious don’t have signs and symptoms, or they have very minimal signs,” she said. “In a group of 10 people there will definitely be people who are infectious and definitely could transmit the virus to other people.”

Fort Worth has been gearing up to host an event on the scale of the National Finals Rodeo since the beginning of the pandemic.

The PGA’s Charles Schwab Challenge was the first sporting event to return in June. The Fort Worth Fire Department played a crucial role in establishing a testing procedure for participants.

Since June the city has hosted smaller equestrian events at the Will Rogers Center, and Kenneth Copeland Ministries brought 3,000 to 5,000 to the Convention Center for the annual Southwest Believers’ Convention in August. The Convention Center was also an overflow shelter for those experiencing homelessness from March to June. The Professional Bull Riders Finals was moved from Las Vegas to Arlington in November.

Large events of some kind have been held in Fort Worth during five of the last seven months, said Bob Jameson, Visit Fort Worth president and CEO. Organizers have built a framework of protocols that allow Fort Worth to host events safely, he said.

“We’ve been using this time to get ready for events and opportunities like this,” he said.

These smaller events have helped stabilize the city’s tourism industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic, he said. In the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, hotels laid off close to 97% of their staff, he said. While unemployment has started to rebound in many sectors, the tourism industry remains between 20% and 30% unemployed, he said.

Jameson said in more than 40 years in the business, he had never seen the kind of job loss the pandemic brought to the tourism industry.

An event like the National Finals Rodeo, which has been projected to bring around $100 million to the local economy, could go a long way to pulling hospitality workers out of unemployment lines, Jameson said. Though he didn’t have data, he said anecdotally Visit Fort Worth had heard from many hotels and restaurants that had ramped up staffing ahead of the rodeo.

“As we came to understand what our industry and our community was up against, we have been looking for these opportunities that provide a way forward,” Jameson said.

Locations Mentioned: Fort Worth Convention Center, Omni Fort Worth Hotel