With March Madness and the loosening of coronavirus restrictions, lighting technician Jay Higginson is getting more work. He’s both excited and weary about it.
He works at a nightclub and regularly sees people who won’t wear masks. He also wishes service industry workers could have gotten vaccinated before the swell in business last month. Many were ineligible based on age until the state opened vaccinations to everyone over 16 at the end of March.
“We should have been given more consideration, but you could make that case for any job,” he said.
Hospitality workers who supported the historic three-week NCAA men’s basketball tournament, from the stadiums to the hotels to the restaurants, were first left off the vaccine priority lists and then largely left out of the rigorous March Madness safety plans. Many were exposed to large crowds, sometimes maskless, during the weeks that businesses swelled with visitors.
As the tournament ended, the city’s most famous restaurant — a popular tourist spot — announced it was temporarily closing after nine employees contracted COVID-19. Then on April 3, his 45th birthday, its long time bartender Michael Gaines died amid the outbreak.
After the news of the outbreak and death at St. Elmo, The District Tap co-owner Michael Cranfill recalled that he and other people in the industry had lobbied for vaccine prioritization.
“I think there could have been different policies and prioritization in place,” he said. “Hindsight 2020, but this was something that was brought up and discussed.”
Despite the hospitality industry lobbying Gov. Eric Holcomb for priority in vaccinations, the state took largely an age-based approach that frustrated many workers who deal directly with customers.
For many, the story is a predictable one as businesses saw crowds return while many of their workers were still unvaccinated.
“The first thing people wanted to do is to go out and use the service industry again,” Higginson said. “The good majority of people in those jobs are unprotected and vulnerable to (COVID-19), especially with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. Every night without fail, a handful of people get argumentative and quote constitutional doctrine about how we’re infringing on their rights.”
The stadium and the bars
During the last few busy weekends, there was a stark contrast between the safety precautions in stadiums with the players and those in the restaurants and bars that served many of the visitors.
A.J. West, who worked to set up stadium events during March Madness, said he had to get COVID-19 tests daily to work at the Lucas Oil Stadium. That was a contrast to the crowded bar scenes he saw in commercial stretches, he said.
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“I even poked my head in a bar on St. Patrick’s day and turned around,” he said. “There were 60 to 70 people at the bar without a mask on.”
Higginson also noticed the difference between the strict temperature checks and mask requirement at Lucas Oil Stadium and the much more relaxed standards at night clubs and restaurants.
“The unspoken rule is that Indy is trying to make up for the loss of money and places were being more flexible than they had been,” Higginson said.
If someone didn’t wear a mask, they would be told to put it on at the stadium, he said. But at night clubs, that wasn’t always the case.
Outside of the stadiums and hotels, the businesses were regulated by Marion County Health Department.
In the course of the tournament, the department suspended the license of two businesses and warned at least another two for violating COVID-19 safety rules. Crowded bars and restaurants were not new during the tournament.
Marion County Health Department can sue for $1,000, but that’s a fraction of what a businesses can make during the course of a busy weekend.
The crowded maskless customers were not unique to March Madness weekends. In early March, videos began circulating of people packed together in night clubs and bars like Ale Emporium and INVY, the majority of whom were not wearing masks.
The scenes horrified people who were carefully quarantining and exposed the two worlds during the pandemic: one where people carefully curated their friend circles and only went out for work and life’s essential needs, and another where life goes on and the COVID-19 rules are a hindrance.
The health department at Fishers told IndyStar last month they’ve received more than 400 complaints during the pandemic about businesses, including Ale Emporium, not following COVID-19 safety rules.
But unlike Marion County, Fishers health department seek to collect fines.
The power of local health departments may diminish further if a senate bill passes that prohibits local health officials from implementing stricter restrictions than the state during an emergency order, unless the regulations are approved by the local legislative body.
The vaccine roll out
Hospitality workers have been weary of allowing bigger crowds in businesses before they have a chance to get vaccinated.But they don’t have a say in it.
Kilroy’s bartender Yvonne Rodriguez told the IndyStar last month that she wishes downtown service workers had been prioritized for vaccinations before the tournament.
“We are exposing ourselves to people from all over the United States,” she said. “It’s a “Catch-22.” I love it. I’m excited. There are people here. I’m making money… But there’s also us as servers and bartenders putting ourselves out there in order to be able to pay our bills.”
Generally, research shows that exposure to crowds of people without masks increases risk of contracting COVID-19, said Shandy Dearth, director of undergraduate epidemiology education at the Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI.
City spokesman Mark Bode said that if there was any discussion about vaccinating hospitality workers, it would have taken place between the tourism industry officials and the state.
“Additionally, for the tournament itself, (the health department) invested additional resources to monitor, engage, and enforce restrictions at restaurants, bars, and entertainment districts,” Bode wrote in an email.
State officials said the vaccination roll out prioritized the most vulnerable and aimed to reduce hospitalizations. The state’s roll out, which left out teachers and other essential workers from priority lists, differed from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation.
However, the hospitality industry and some workers can’t complain too much because Indiana has been able to move quickly through the population, offering vaccinations to all adults by the end of March.
For most younger service workers, however, their vaccinations are very likely after the March Madness crowd left the city.
Was it worth it?
Since mid-March, COVID-19 cases have started to rise again in Marion County and across the rest of the country as the warm weather brings more people out, business restrictions loosen up and vaccinations make people hopeful for a return to pre-pandemic life.
In the coming weeks, the city could see the health consequences of hosting a big event at the last stretch of a deadly pandemic.
“It’s not too early to ask whether or not it was wise to take this risk, but it’s too early to answer those questions,” said Michael Hicks, an economist of Ball State University.
One of the the major draws of the hosting March Madness is the economic boost to restaurants and hotels that have struggled through the pandemic. That tension between health and safety and business survival has run through every day of the pandemic, exasperated by insufficient or late government aid that forced people to choose between the two.
Connie Oates-Allen, the owner of Michael’s Soul Kitchen, kept her restaurant closed for most of the pandemic and reopened for March Madness.
For her, keeping the restaurant open through the pandemic wasn’t worth the risk. But as vaccinations began and the cases dropped from the peaks in winter, she couldn’t turn down an opportunity to capitalize on the March Madness crowd.
“I had to be closed down for a whole year because I didn’t want to spread the virus in my restaurant,” she said.
Once she got vaccinated and the older adults who were most risk could get a shot, she felt that tension ease.
“I didn’t open up until the week of the tournament, that’s when I reopen my restaurant,” she said.
But like so many business owners, she wishes restaurant workers could have been vaccinated before the swell in business in the spring.
Contact IndyStar reporter Binghui Huang at 317-385-1595 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Binghuihuang