Virus fears prompt Arnold festival to bar most spectators

Posted at 11:21 PM, Mar 03, 2020

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The annual Arnold Sports Festival will close all but one evening of the four-day sporting expo in Columbus to everyone but athletes and close family members because of the threat posed by the new coronavirus, officials announced Tuesday.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said at a hastily called Statehouse news conference that most events — including a trade show, health food fair and amateur competitions — will not be held, and spectators will not be permitted except for Saturday night's professional bodybuilding and strongman finals.

"This is a balancing test," DeWine said, explaining the need to protect public health while considering the hard work for participating athletes.

Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the city's public health commissioner, said athletes from five countries affected by the virus — China, Iran, South Korea, Japan and Italy — will be excluded. Those roughly 20 participants are among 20,000 athletes scheduled to compete.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who established the festival, said by cellphone during the news conference that he will consider rescheduling ancillary events on a later date once the virus' threat has passed.

"We have the biggest and best health and fitness festival in world, but we would never choose making money over people's health," he said.

Schwarzenegger called it a "very sad moment," saying this is the first time in festival history that activities have been postponed.

DeWine cited hours-old guidance on mass gatherings from the Centers for Disease Control to take into account the capacity of local health departments to prevent community spread. He said about 4,000 people had already bought tickets to Saturday night's event, which DeWine said only lasts a few hours and doesn't have a lot of congestion. Officials considered it not significantly different from something like a basketball game.

Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther said the festival is the city's largest single event. It has an economic impact of $53 million each year.

An online petition created Sunday had called for DeWine to cancel the event because of the outbreak.