Organizers of major Spokane events face challenges as they navigate the public health restrictions – and participant concerns – brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spokane Marathon organizers announced Thursday that they decided to cancel the race and will begin planning for the 2021 event, joining marathons in cities like New York and Boston by skipping 2020.
Organizers of Hoopfest and Bloomsday have given no indication they won’t move ahead with plans for their rescheduled events later this year, but both could be forced to adapt or cancel depending on public health regulations.
The Spokane Marathon, an event significantly smaller than Bloomsday and Hoopfest, was scheduled to take place on Oct. 11, but organizers announced its cancellation as Spokane County continues to see a surge in COVID-19 cases and rise in hospitalizations.
Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz is in conversations with the organizers of both Hoopfest and Bloomsday, he said.
According to the governor’s Safe Start reopening plan, gatherings of more than 50 people, even outdoor group recreational or sports activities, are not allowed until Phase 4. This would, in theory, automatically cancel both events if they were expecting to proceed as they have in years past – unless Spokane County is in Phase 4 in six weeks, by August 22 and 23rd, the weekend Hoopfest was re-scheduled for.
“We’re not going to be near Phase 4 in the foreseeable future,” Lutz said.
Attempts to reach Bloomsday and Hoopfest organizers on Friday were unsuccessful.
Lutz is working with city permitting staff, who would issue permits for events, to ensure that they are acknowledging and meeting current public health criteria. The governor and the Department of Health recently tweaked Phase 3 guidelines to disallow nightclubs or concert venues from opening in that phase. Bar-style seating and live music are now prohibited in both Phases 2 and 3.
Nightclubs, concert venues and gatherings of 50 or more are only allowed in Phase 4. The whole state is currently on pause in the governor’s Safe Start phases due to a steady increase in case counts in several counties statewide, meaning no counties can apply to move ahead. Even without a pause, Spokane County is not meeting several of the markers necessary to advance.
Bloomsday already had adjusted its event plans in the face of the pandemic, but has not canceled the race. Typically held in May, the race was pushed back to September.
Earlier this month, Bloomsday organizers announced they would offer a “virtual” option for runners who are concerned about the risk posed by coronavirus but still wish to participate.
Virtual Bloomsday runners will select any 12-kilometer course of their choosing between Sept. 18 and 20, time their run and submit the results online. Although they won’t line up on race day, they’ll still receive a commemorative race number and the finisher T-shirt.
The cost to participate in the virtual race is the same as the in-person option, and those already registered for the race can switch to the virtual option online.
Bloomsday organizers said in a statement earlier this month that they will look to public health officials to determine whether the event can safely be held on its traditional course, and that the health of its runners and volunteers is the “top priority.”
Lutz said there is a possibility of potentially staggering a race outdoors with a smaller number of people with no pre- or post-race events, but getting permitted would be a challenge if events expected large numbers of people.
“The reality is with our trajectory, we will be hard pressed to see any kind of leveling off of our curve in the next couple of weeks, and realistically we need to be seeing a two, four, six-week trend before we would ever consider going forward,” he said.
Lutz said decisions will be made in conversation with organizers of both Hoopfest and Bloomsday about their best options.
“My preference would be it’s a conversation, and they decide that it’s not feasible, practical or realistic,” he said.
Ultimately, he said it will come down to permitting, and if they cannot get a permit for their event, it won’t be allowed to proceed.
Diane Foster lives in Missoula, Montana, and has made participating in Bloomsday a recent tradition with her husband and daughter.
“Unfortunately, in my heart, I know we will cancel unless there is just a miracle revival. It is so much fun being there that weekend that we continue to hold out hope,” Foster said.
Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the city of Spokane, said Hoopfest presents unique challenges due to the close-contact nature of the game. Current rules issued by Secretary of Health John Wiesman would require participants to wear a mask – not a desirable way to play basketball.
He said Mayor Nadine Woodward remains hopeful about holding outdoor events, but that major gatherings will be difficult. In 2019, Hoopfest drew nearly 25,000 players.
“We’re not where we hoped we’d be right now. She’s cautiously optimistic, but obviously following very closely the current thinking between our health district and the Department of Health,” Coddington said.
For the Spokane Marathon, the cancellation was a response to the will of its participants. Volunteers who organize the race sent out an online survey asking participants if they would prefer to cancel their registration, defer a year, run a virtual race or donate their fees.
The majority opted to defer, according to Dori Whitford, a member of the race committee. The next Spokane Marathon has been scheduled for Oct. 10, 2021.
“The people have spoken. It will be back as long as the world gets back to something slightly normal,” Whitford said.
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