Mesa puts tournaments on COVID probation The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa puts tournaments on COVID probation

December 20th, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
Mesa puts tournaments on COVID probation

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Mesa last week adopted strict public health protocols at sports fields as an alternative to closing them, allowing out-of-state sports tournaments to proceed amid the surge in COVID-19 – and save millions of dollars in local hotel bookings.

But the city’s decision came with a stiff warning.

Mesa Mayor John Giles said he was initially inclined to close the fields after Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief health officer of Banner Health, told him that intensive care units are filling up with COVID-19 patients at an alarming rate.

“The quote I remember was, ‘we are going to be crushed,’’ Giles said, with Bessel predicting double-bunking as a necessary evil when hospitals reach 150 percent of capacity within the next two months.

But Giles reversed course and recommended that City Council approve a compromise approach engineered by Marc Garcia, president and CEO of Visit Mesa, as a lifeline to Mesa’s beleaguered hospitality industry.

He said Garcia told him the already decimated hotel industry would lose thousands of bookings during the next two months and be forced to lay off about 300 employees if the city closed fields and nixed the youth sports tournaments – one of the hotels’ few sources of business in the pandemic.

“It’s a somber thought of hundreds of people losing their jobs just before Christmas,’’ Giles said.

But the mayor also said he is disappointed by the public’s cooperation with mask and social distancing requirements even after the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 7,500 Arizona residents.

He cited a food truck event he attended on Dec. 11 where the organizers followed the rules but their patrons didn’t.

“There were way too many people standing in line not wearing masks,’’ Giles said. “The event got a C for mask wearing.’’

He said the public’s response to COVID must improve to avoid an even worse calamity this winter.

“I think we need to message to the community that the next step is closing the fields,’’ Giles said. “We are very close to doing something drastic unless the general community catches on. The time for gentle persuasion is over.’’

Councilwoman Jen Duff praised the response of restaurants and other businesses to the pandemic, but added, “People are not doing their best.’’

Despite the dire spike in COVID-19, Garcia pleaded in a Dec. 14 email for keeping the fields open and pledged a series of additional protocols at hotels.

Those measures include keeping tournament visitors separated from other customers, closing the pools and catering meals in hotel ballrooms.

Garcia was attempting to avoid the field closures already in place in Phoenix and Tempe.

He listed nine upcoming tournaments, although a city document lists up to 21 events which would be covered by the stricter protocols.

“Visit Mesa and its partnering hotels are still experiencing an almost complete shutdown of meetings, conventions and corporate travel. These meetings will not resume until a vaccine is widely distributed which will take several more months,’’ Garcia wrote.

“Mesa hotels have expressed that it is the return of sports tournaments and events that have at least helped with the already devastating losses. Youth and amateur sports are ‘keeping the lights on’ while effectively saving tourism and its jobs.

“Our hoteliers have expressed to our staff and other leaders in Mesa that their protocols and measures in place are effective and they are working diligently to ensure the safety of their guests while on property,’’ he wrote.

Garcia also provided a grim report on the financial impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry, which has been devastated nationwide.

“From Visit Mesa, brokered business alone, captured from March–August 2020, our hotels incurred 12,000 hotel room cancellations representing a loss of $6,422,742 in estimated direct visitor spend, or $12,229,573.00 in estimated economic impact to our City and local businesses,” he wrote.

“These numbers pale in comparison to the overall cancellations at Mesa hotels from in-house business at Mesa’s 60+ hotels.’’

Giles said the lifeline Mesa is tossing to the hospitality industry will evaporate if players, spectators and friends at the games continue to blow off the mask and social distancing requirements.

The rules call for park site supervisors to warn event organizers that individual games, or even entire tournaments, will be shut down if parents refuse to wear masks or observe social distancing.

Acting Deputy City Manager Marc Heirshberg said that if compliance is sporadic, the next step would be closing the fields.

By following the “simple rules,’’ spectators at the games can ensure that the fields remain available for their children to have fun playing in the tournaments, which include baseball, soccer and lacrosse events.

Heirshberg said the city is not asking much of parents who are spectators – just wear a mask and spread out.

“If you want your child to play, you will wear a mask,’’ he said. “Those simple things will keep the kids active and keep these fields available.’’

Vice Mayor Mark Freeman, whose district includes two baseball stadiums that are among Mesa’s top tourist destinations, strongly backed keeping the fields open if the public cooperates with the protocols.

He and council member Kevin Thompson sided with the compromise, while Duff and Luna expressed reservations. In the end, the council consented to the stricter rules in lieu of a closure.

“It’s out of respect for other people who may have underlying conditions,’’ Freeman said. “People just don’t want to get sick.’’

“The hospitality industry has taken a hit,’’ Freeman said. “I think the youth groups are the lowest people who might get sick. I don’t want to over-reach. They need to monitor themselves.’’

Thompson said he wants to keep the fields open but added that he was at an event at Red Mountain Park recently where mask-wearing was not universal.

“I think kids need that outlet,’’ Thompson said.

Giles said the decision to leave the fields open will be re-evaluated at a study session in January.

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