Not Too Soon to Plan for Restart


By Collin Callahan

In the United States and around the world, governments and individual business operators are working to identify specific methods and benchmarks by which to begin the process of restarting the economies of the world. In the United States, planning for reopening businesses and returning Americans to regular activities has been left to individual states to determine, creating a patchwork framework that complicates the reopening of many businesses. Regulations in one region may be significantly different than in others. Even within those states that have moved to open some sectors of their economies, not every region is opening under the same rules or with the same timeline in place. When the attention of the world turns to the feasibility of re-starting large-scale events, it is important that the air show community to be prepared with practical, common sense solutions to limiting the spread of the Coronavirus during our events. Beyond relatively simple solutions, like additional hand sanitizing and hand washing stations, there are several changes that shows can consider. And, for many of those changes, it will be important that event organizers communicate these policies and safeguards well before the show begins.

On the positive side, air shows are outdoor events at which spectators usually have lots of room to self-socially distance. And, as real-world experience and research on COVID-19 becomes clearer, doctors and scientists are beginning to distinguish between high-risk and lower-risk situations. Erin Bromage is a comparative immunologist and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. In a blog post entitled, “The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them,” Bromage describes in very specific detail how patrons at a small restaurant were infected by a single infected individual based on where they were seated in the restaurant and how the restaurant’s HVAC system circulated air. Bromage explains the relative difference between a breath, spoken word, a cough and a sneeze, as well as the distinction between sustained exposure and momentary exposure to the virus. And, he clarifies why restaurants, meat packing plants and indoor sporting events are more risky than outdoor events and even indoor venues where air circulates freely and sustained exposure is unlikely. As the reopening of our economy begins, air shows can legitimately be described as low-risk, mass-attendance events.

Event organizers will probably want to discourage at-risk populations from attending their shows. Government and public health officials are emphasizing a “safer at home” message for those who are elderly or immunocompromised, like those with chronic conditions or those who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But the recommendation also encourages those with more common conditions, like high blood pressure and obesity, to be thoughtful and cautious about the potential of exposing themselves to the virus. In most reopening plans that have been released, health officials are urging at risk populations to avoid crowds for as long as possible.

For some air show sites, spectators may notice a difference as soon as they park their cars. Shows that rely on off-site parking and shuttle buses will want to investigate amending their processes for getting spectators from the parking area to the flightline and then back again at the end of the show. For example, a draft copy of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that mass transit agencies should ensure that all riders and operators are separated by at least six feet. Many transit agencies have begun boarding passengers through the rear door of busses and blocking every-other row of seats to accomplish this.

Physical distancing may need to be enforced on the flightline as well. Signage can encourage distancing, as can other visual cues. Most grocery stores have lined their aisles with arrows and dots so that customers can visually separate themselves from one another. At the register, plexiglass dividers stand between cashiers and shoppers, separating them when physical space cannot.

Physical distancing is less problematic on an airport ramp than in a movie theater or at a baseball stadium, and that may allow air shows to return before spectators can return to major sporting events. When asked about Independence Day festivities in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump said that events would be held on the National Mall as in years past, but, “This year, most likely, we’ll be standing six feet apart.”

Vendors and volunteers may also need to be physically distanced from attendees. Physical solutions — like plexiglass dividers — may suffice, but vendors can also implement solutions that restaurants have used. With dining rooms closed, more restaurants have rolled out mobile ordering, allowing customers to pick up food without physically interacting with restaurant staff. Fast-food chains have had contactless, to-go solutions in place for several years now, which allow customers to place orders on an app and pick up their bag of food from a designated spot.

If vendors can’t physically distance themselves, health officials have advised people to wear masks. Some businesses have required patrons to wear masks when visiting. While there has been pushback, most people surveyed in an Associated Press poll said they were wearing masks when going out.

Air show organizers will also need to enforce social distancing for performers. During safety briefings, it may be necessary to space seats up to six feet apart. That’s precisely how cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy attended a scaled-down graduation ceremony in April. Depending on a number of factors, box seating and sponsor chalet logistics may also need adjustments or changes.

One of the mainstays of air shows is static aircraft tours. The opportunity to walk through military airplanes and helicopters is a crowd favorite. But — even with physical distancing inside aircraft and with people wearing face masks — statics may be problematic. Aircraft would need to be thoroughly cleaned for the safety of flight crews and spectators. Studies have shown that the Coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for days if not treated with disinfectant.

As discussed during a 45-minute “webinar” last week, an out-of-the-box alternative to traditional air shows could be drive-in air shows. In the last two months, there has been a revival of drive-in movie theaters. And the drive-in concept has been extended to live music and religious services during the last two months. Due to the separated nature of such venues, officials have allowed them to proceed. “Where is the public-safety [problem]?” asked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “It’s a drive-in theater. You’re in the car with the same people [with the people you live with].” Social distancing is still enforced at the concession stand and in lines for restrooms, but — so far — officials have been supportive of those businesses.

Regardless of when officials allow air shows to proceed, event organizers will likely need to give considerable thought to how to make attendees feel safe at the air show. Most Americans are worried about future outbreaks of the coronaviruses — a “second wave” — or are concerned about family members contracting the disease. Air shows will need to do their part to address these concerns and ensure spectators feel comfortable attending their shows.

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The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.