For more than a year, the pandemic canceled or dramatically changed nearly all of the major events Eastern Washingtonians love.
Hoopfest and county fairs didn’t happen. Washington State University football fans couldn’t watch their beloved Cougs in person. The Spokane Indians didn’t play a single baseball game in 2020.
Then, for a few brief months this spring and summer, life seemed nearly normal again. Events were back, sometimes without restrictions, and many hoped it would stay that way.
With local COVID-19 hospitalizations hitting all-time highs, thanks in large part to the delta variant, restrictions are coming back and even outdoor events may not be immune.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the return of mask requirements indoors, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status.
So far, mandates haven’t come down for outdoor events, although the Washington State Department of Health is strongly recommending individuals wear masks in crowded outdoor settings.
At times, outdoor events have avoided pandemic-caused closures and restrictions. That’s because medical experts say outdoor events are generally safer. It’s easier to practice social distancing outside and there’s better air flow.
The delta variant complicates the situation, however.
There isn’t much data yet on the transmissibility of the delta variant at outdoor events, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the delta variant is two times more contagious than other strains of COVID-19.
Some data suggests the delta variant makes people sicker. Inland Northwest medical leaders say they’ve seen more young people hospitalized recently, likely due to the delta variant.
The delta variant is also alarming because it seems to produce the same amount of virus in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. That does not mean vaccines are ineffective against the delta variant. Local hospitals say more than 90% of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
The delta variant appears to have caused several large COVID-19 outbreaks at outdoor events, including in Washington.
For instance, the Grant County Health District said it has confirmed 225 COVID-19 cases tied to the Watershed Music Festival, held July 30 through Aug. 1 at the Gorge Amphitheater in George. Roughly 25,000 people attended Watershed.
People sleeping in tents and being in close quarters for days in a row was likely a “large contributing factor” to the outbreak, Grant Health District spokeswoman Misty Aguilar said.
What’s happening with outdoor events?
One major outdoor event has already been canceled, even though Gov. Inslee’s mandate didn’t require it.
Organizers announced last week that Pig Out in the Park won’t be happening until 2022. It’s the second year in a row Spokane’s six-day food and music festival has been canceled.
Other outdoor events have imposed their own restrictions.
AEG Presents, the company that organizes concerts at the Pavilion in Riverfront Park, will require proof of vaccination at concerts starting Oct. 1. People who bought tickets, but are unwilling to get vaccinated, can request a refund.
Between Aug. 28 and Oct 1, concertgoers will have to provide either proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from an official testing center taken within 72 hours of the event.
Other outdoor event organizers said they haven’t made any final decisions on whether they’re going to require masks or proof of vaccination.
The Spokane County Interstate Fair will return from Sept. 10 to 19 this year after being canceled in 2020. Fair director Erin Gurtel said masks will be required indoors, per the governor’s orders, but there aren’t any plans for outdoor mask mandates or vaccination requirements.
“We are definitely evaluating everything,” Gurtel said.
Hoopfest, scheduled for Sept. 11 and 12, was canceled last year too.
Matt Santangelo, executive director of the Spokane Hoopfest Association, said Hoopfest leaders chose those September dates in January. Opting for September, instead of the summer, seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Who in their right mind would think that we had a better shot of running Hoopfest in June than we do in September?” Santangelo said. “We thought we were being smart.”
Santangelo said that, as of now, there aren’t any restrictions planned for Hoopfest’s outdoor games.
“We’re contemplating everything,” he said.
Dr. Francisco Velazquez, interim health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, said during a Wednesday press conference that the district met with both the fair and Hoopfest last week.
“Our approach is to walk down the path with them, make sure we’re having an active conversation and make sure we’re making real-time decisions as we go forward,” Velazquez said.
The Spokane Indians only have one homestand left this season – their last home game is Sept. 5 – and the team doesn’t plan on requiring proof of vaccination during its remaining games, Spokane Indians Senior Vice President Otto Klein said.
“We’re going to continue what we’ve been doing until we’ve been told otherwise,” Klein said. “If the mask mandate comes down for outside events we would gladly adhere to that.”
Thousands of WSU football fans undoubtedly have their fingers crossed that the pandemic won’t lead to any restrictions at Martin Stadium this fall.
During a livestream Thursday, Washington State University Athletic Director Pat Chun said there are no plans for mask mandates, capacity restrictions or vaccination requirements at Cougar football games.
Chun said the university will comply with any state requirements.
“We want a full Martin Stadium,” he said. “We want full capacity at all our venues.”
Tailgating could be back to normal, too.
“Today, everything is full-go with tailgating,” Chun said. “We know how important these Saturdays are to Cougs. These are seven sacred Saturdays.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.