“If we’re looking at numbers and how we’re trending, I believe we’ll have fans at the Indy 500” says Marion County Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine

INDIANAPOLIS — What a difference a year makes. At this point last year, we were hunkered down and gripped with fear as the novel coronavirus was spreading its deadly way throughout the world of ours. A year ago tomorrow, the NTT IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the unfathomable – the Indy 500 was moving out of the Month of May.

The race was postponed from the traditional Memorial Day weekend date to Aug. 23. Now, 364 days later, signs are much better.

While we can’t take away the past and how many innocent lives were lost due to this pandemic, what we can do is look for brighter days ahead. On Tuesday, Indiana Governor, Eric Holcomb, said that on April 6, things will get back to a somewhat normal again. On Thursday, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Mario County Health Department Director, Dr. Virginia Caine, said that while the mask mandates will stay around in Marion County, they also discussed the possibility of fans returning to IMS in a couple of months.

“We’re much further ahead in the game,” said Caine in a difference between now and last year when we were at a similar situation related to the Indy 500. So we’re hoping to be very optimistic. I’m a fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and they have such an outstanding team and the consultants that they’ve brought to bear related to our safety.”

“If we’re looking at numbers and how we’re trending, I believe we’ll have fans at the Indy 500.”

That’s great news for race fans. The first question now is, how many? The second one is what’s changed from this year to last? More on that final point in a minute.

But, do you expect a sold out capacity crowd? Well, no. We’ve had one in the last few decades and that coming for the 100th Running in 2016. Will we push that limit in 2021?

Absolutely not.

But, I do think that we can have a sizeable crowd though. Roger Penske spoke to the media via a zoom call on Monday morning and he said that the goal is to have 250k coming through the gates on May 30. While that’s a lofty goal, who’s to say that can or can’t happen.

Do I believe that we’ll see 250k coming? No. He was referring to the grandstand seating capacity limit. But, he also says that 170k tickets have already been sold. I think we can get to that number if things keep trending the way that they have.

“Our goal is to have 250,000,” Penske said Monday. “That’s what we want to have. It’s outside. We’ve got the biggest stadium in the world here, and it’s a matter of where we’re going to be with the CDC and the governor and the mayor, so I don’t have any number that I’d want to hang my hat on. We’re not making any predictions at all, because anything I would say today could be completely wrong.”

Last year’s race had no spectators. So, for this news it has to be reassuring to hear. If we want to push a crowd of 175k though, it’s going to come down to the positivity rate and what comes out of this March Madness atmosphere.

I wrote about that literally a month ago today too. The city started opening things back up earlier this month. I was happy but somewhat afraid in the back of my mind what this would do for May.

The Big 10 Tournament as well as the entire NCAA Tournament would be played in Indianapolis. With bars easing restrictions and fans able to attend these games, there was a possibility that the numbers could rise again.

This happened last year. We tried to reopen but numbers spiked. In November, everything shut back down again.

Last November, mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine announced the new changes amid rising cases. At that time, Marion County reported more than 700 cases in a single day The seven-day positivity rate was 12%.

At the time, Caine attributed the rise in cases to social gatherings. The changes included venues restrictions on venues, closure of entertainment venues by midnight, sporting events limited to 25% capacity and other guidelines too.

That’s why I was waiting to see how this all played out this month which I figured would decide the Indy 500’s fate again.

Hogsett said just that on Thursday too.

“We will have data that tells us unequivocally whether or not these large events that we are currently hosting has caused any kind of significant uptick in positive cases,” he said.

Go ahead and re read that again.

“We will have data that tells us unequivocally whether or not these large events that we are currently hosting has caused any kind of significant uptick in positive cases,” he said.

Right now, according to a report, Marion County’s positivity rate has plunged by three-quarters in seven weeks to 3.8%.

What happens if it rises? While it has some, it’s stayed below a 4%.

Luckily, vaccinations have been underway here and by the end of the month, everyone over the age of 16 can get one if they want one.

Holcomb says that 3/4 of Hoosiers over the age of 70 are fully vaccinated and nearly 2/3 of those in their 60’s are.

On top of that, hospitals have the right amount of resources available to handle another surge he says if there happens to be one. Furthermore, hospitals are near record lows and deaths are continually dropping in numbers.

This is all great news for the race. Everything is trending towards this crowd maybe exceeding 100k.

Even Hogsett acknowledged that IMS being an outdoor venue helps, especially with so many already vaccinated and how many more will be to come in the next few months.

“We all acknowledge that because of what we understand of the virus, outdoor environments are safer,” he said. “By the time of Memorial Day weekend, we’ll have had many more weeks of increased vaccine distribution, which I think will certainly plan in an important role in decision making as we go forward.”

While I get everyone being giddy, I also get the trepidation. Last year, they announced on June 26 that the race would go on at 25% capacity. Then, the cases tripled and that plan went out the window.

That’s why that 3.8% rate is the thing to watch right now. What’s the level to where that number sits in April or early May to make the decision on fans or no fans and if fans, how many? It was around 8% on race day last year.

On the flipside though, if the numbers don’t rise above 4% after a full month of being as open as we’ve been, does this affect the race in terms of maybe an even larger number than initially expected? It could actually help the cause too depending on how you look at it. If that number hovers below a 5% and even stay around or lower than 3.8%, does the capacity push 175k or dare I say larger?

A crowd that size IMS can still safely hold with social distancing. The thing is, a crowd at Indy would likely make it the largest one day attended event in this COVID era too. That’s most certainly going to get attention from the opposite side. Those that said you better line the streets outside of the track last year with body bags if you allowed fans to come to the race. Those that want to push fear and give this race and this city unpopular attention. Those are look at this race because of the name and because anyone is showing up will not give it the right attention or help their narrative.

I trust Roger Penske, Doug Boles, Mark Miles, Jay Frye and company. These are four of the best businessmen and leaders in this entire country right now. You know that their plan is as pristine as the IMS grounds and Penske perfect.

What the pundits won’t tell you is that the IMS is a campus is 935 acres. 244 of that includes the infield alone. You can fit Vatican City, Churchill Downs, Wimbledon (the entire facility), the Roman Coliseum, Yankee Stadium and the Rose Bowl all snuggled up inside of those 244 acres inside.

So, putting a large crowd north of 150k, you can safely distance everyone throughout the grounds rather easily.

As NASCAR has started holding fans since last summer, there’s been no tied outbreaks to these races. They’ve pulled it off in great fashion. IMS can do the same. Daytona just had 30k at the Daytona 500 with a seating capacity of 101,500. No outbreaks happened.

NASCAR has used staggered entry points to staggered entry times, to distancing to everything in between, IMS can make this happen. The grounds are so massive, you can’t let the number of people there scare you off. You won’t encounter that number.

These are all good signs for race fans later this spring.

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