OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Thousands of fans will flood to CHI Center Omaha this weekend to cheer on the nation’s fastest swimmers. A week later, the College World Series returns to TD Ameritrade Park.
In August, country music legend Garth Brooks will fill Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, not long before Scott Frost and the Huskers do the same.
After a pandemic year marked by reduced capacity and cancellations, big events are back. The folks who run local arenas, stadiums, theaters and convention centers say they are ready.
“Oh it’s huge,” said Kristyna Engdahl, spokeswoman for Omaha’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which runs the CHI Center and TD Ameritrade Park. “I think it was a year and how a half ago that the lights went out, and they stayed out for a very long time.”
For MECA and other hosts, the return of crowds as the worst of the pandemic wanes means planning more sanitizer stations and increased cleaning of seats and other surfaces.
It means no more physical tickets and no more cash for purchasing concessions at Sarpy County’s Werner Park and downtown’s Omaha’s arena and ballpark.
At TD Ameritrade, outfield general admission will include reserved seats for the first time instead of forcing fans to stand for hours in line for first-come, first-served seats.
Werner now requires people bring only clear bags, so security staff doesn’t have to thumb through people’s belongings. They’ve even removed trash can lids to reduce touch points.
“It is new to Chasers fans, because a number of them or most of them didn’t come out last year,” said Martie Cordaro, president of the Omaha Storm Chasers and Union Omaha. “They are largely surprised when I say we safely had 180 events with over 90,000 people last year.”
Many of Werner’s 2020 events were smaller and focused on community outreach, things like letting youth sports teams play on the field and private business events. Union Omaha also hosted eight socially distanced home soccer matches.
The Storm Chasers are operating this month at more than half capacity. They plan to operate at full capacity starting around July Fourth, when they host a fireworks show.
“We’ve been fortunate to be safe with no covid cases and no covid trace cases, and we’re going to continue to practice safety, and we’re doing that,” he said.
All of this preparation is music to the ears of Dr. Mark Rupp, who heads the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s division on infectious diseases like COVID-19.
To him, the ability to host large events again reflects progress by the public, with help from medical and public health professionals. It also shows how well vaccines work, he said.
“If there’s ever a good reason to get vaccinated, this is it,” Rupp said. “If you want to go and participate in some large group setting, whether that be the Swim Trials or the College World Series ... these are going to be safer for you if you’re fully vaccinated.”
Dr. Anne O’Keefe, the Douglas County Health Department’s chief epidemiologist, says more people still need to take the coronavirus vaccine.
Young people, especially those ages 12 to 18, need to get their vaccinated numbers up to make sure the wider herd can stay ahead of virus variants.
“I think the biggest thing is that we still don’t have enough people vaccinated to truly feel safe,” she said. “We have about 45 percent of all residents of Douglas County are vaccinated.”
That’s part of why the county is working with MECA and other event organizers – including the CWS and large churches – to park the county’s mobile vaccine clinic vans nearby.
“As you walk through you can get vaccinated on-site from the professionals that they’ll have traveling here with them and then go enjoy the game,” Engdahl said.
Local health officials who spoke with 3 News Now Investigators offered a series of tips to anybody who plans to attend a big event.
They say the most important thing people can do is to get vaccinated. They recommended that unvaccinated people wear a mask at events, to protect themselves and others.
But they suggested that even vaccinated people might do well to bring a mask with them, in case they find themselves in line for concessions, the bathroom or to get into an event.
Rupp said even outdoor events have some risk when people are sitting “cheek to jowl” and cheering for their favorite team or artist. He said people who feel sick should stay home.
Officials also recommended that anybody who feels ill after attending an event get tested for the virus. Cordaro, Engdahl and others say they want people to attend and stay healthy.
“We’re very experienced in this,” he said. “And what I would say to fans is give venues a chance.”