COLUMBUS — Ohio’s top health official issued an order Thursday restricting most spectators from the annual Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over coronavirus fears, following two days of back-and-forth debate with festival organizers.
The order from Health Department Director Dr. Amy Acton limits spectators to parents or guardians of minors participating in the festival, which attracts tens of thousands to the capital city. It allows attendance at some events Friday and Saturday, including the men’s and women’s physique finals.
The festival is the city’s largest single event, with an economic impact of $53 million each year. It began as a bodybuilding competition founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1989 but has since grown into a giant sports festival whose events also include include weightlifting, running races, martial arts, table tennis and jump roping, among many others.
Arnold organizers said they will abide by the order, even while arguing they were being unfairly singled out compared with other athletic contests in the state, including professional sports games and college basketball contests.
The order came after Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that the event would continue as normal, despite a deal late Tuesday restricting attendance.
“There is no explanation to allow all these other events with 20,000 fans to continue while not allowing us to sell tickets to a few thousand sports fans to watch our different sports,” Schwarzenegger, the actor and former California governor, said in the Wednesday letter to Gov. Mike DeWine and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.
DeWine said Thursday the Arnold is different from other events.
“We are also concerned that that almost all the athletic competitions at the festival are not single-ticket events and are rather general admission, which allows for spectators to attend dozens of events and travel freely from facility to facility,” the governor said.
Daniel Ketchell, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, tweeted that people also move around freely during sporting events to buy food and drinks and use the restroom.
Acton said she followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control to analyze events based in part on local health officials’ ability to respond. She noted Arnold organizers predicted as many as 250,000 attendees.
“When you talk these numbers during an epidemic, an outbreak, we are fully taxing our systems as they are,” Acton said.
Some would-be Arnold spectators expressed frustration with the timing of the announcement and the way information was distributed, including by Arnold organizers.
“It was handled foolishly,” Nick Conley, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, told The Columbus Dispatch Thursday. “The people in charge are putting everyone through the ringer.”
Thursday’s order came as DeWine and Acton held a summit with local health officials to discuss preparations for the coronavirus. Presentations at the half-day event in Columbus included steps to take after a case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is confirmed and how to identify people vulnerable to the virus.
The goal of the conference was preparation, DeWine said.
“We know the coronavirus is coming to Ohio. Every health expert tells us that,” DeWine said. “But we have to do everything to slow it from coming to Ohio, and then to slow it down as far as how it spreads out.”
Ohio has no confirmed cases so far and is monitoring one person who showed signs of the disease.