Cleared for take-off

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MCAS Beaufort going ahead with air show despite increases in COVID-19 cases – could popular exhibition become next ‘super spreader’ event?

By Mindy Lucas

Despite increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Beaufort County and across the country, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort plans to go ahead with its biennial air show set for April, officials say.

The popular event, which features military aircraft on display as well as aviation demonstrations by the Navy’s Blue Angels and other pilots, typically attracts 100,000 spectators or more to the free show.

Asked what factors went into the decision to go ahead with the event, or if medical specialists were consulted in its planning, a spokesperson for MCAS Beaufort said in a Jan. 19 email that the air station was taking “a multitude of actions” such as hiring an air boss to manage the event.

While an air boss is primarily responsible for the production and execution of air show and other aviation activities on taxiways, runways and surrounding air show demonstration areas, he or she typically does not have a background in infectious disease or prevention.

However, the air station went on to say it plans to have members of its Navy preventive medicine on hand to inspect food service vendors and provide hand washing stations.

“MCAS Beaufort leadership takes COVID-19 seriously, and (will) meticulously implement CDC recommended guidelines and local medical experts’ recommendations to combat this virus,” read an emailed response sent by Kimberly Fleming, Deputy Director, Operations, Plans, and External Affairs.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have remained operational to complete our mission, as the need to defend our country is unceasing. We’ve found that COVID-19 mitigation measures are effective when strictly followed and we hope to continue our tradition of hosting our Air Show for the Beaufort community, safely,” the email stated.

While the majority of the air show’s activities are outside and spread out over a wide area conducive to social distancing, similar events set outdoors or that feature both indoor and outdoor activities have been canceled recently.

The Palmetto Sportsmen’s Classic scheduled for March 26-28 at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia was canceled earlier this month out of concerns for the virus and in Savannah, the St. Patrick’s Day parade and festival was also canceled in January making it the second year in a row the event has been called off.

The Sportsmen’s Classic usually draws about 40,000 participants, while the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Festival attracts nearly 300,000.

“I hoped and prayed that our situation might improve. But I think that with what we witnessed this holiday season, we put the health of our city and our citizens at risk …” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson about the decision.

Johnson said he consulted with health officials and local leaders before making the decision to cancel the popular event originally scheduled for mid-March.

City officials were hoping to move forward with other smaller events like its traditional Mass at the Cathedral and greening of the fountain.

Meanwhile in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster and the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) both have come under fire for their handling of the virus, most recently for delays and slow roll-out of its vaccine program.

While McMaster has not moved to restrict large gatherings or sporting events so far this year, the governor did declare a state of emergency as part of his “stay home” order last March which restricted those then, but only after many of the region’s high profile spring events such as NASCAR races and the Masters golf tournament held in Augusta, Ga., moved to postpone or cancel events on their own.

The ban was later lifted in the summer.

Improving vaccination rates is key to making any future determinations about large gatherings or other such events, a DHEC official said recently.

“And really avoiding, right now when we’re in this significant increase in cases, avoid those large groups,” DHEC’s Interim Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said at the agency’s Jan. 4 statewide media briefing.

“If we can get the numbers down to much more reasonable levels, combined with increasing vaccination rates, then I think the advice regarding large gatherings would begin to evolve and change,” she said.

Dr. Traxler went on to advise that if people did decide to go out in public or attend large gatherings, they should still wear a mask and practice physical distancing.

Masks will be required to attend the air show and for paid seating, a limited number of tickets will be sold to ensure social distancing in those areas, the MCAS also said.

In addition, all common areas will be frequently disinfected by staff, and, new this year, participants will have an option to buy a Purchase Protection Plan for $5.

Those who opt for the protection plan will be refunded any event fees, taxes or dues if they are unable to attend the show due to a “qualifying unforeseen circumstance” such as illness, injury, transportation problems and other emergencies.

The plan does include COVID-19 but certain restrictions apply. For example, if a ticket holder contracts the virus 30 days before the event and decides not to attend or cannot attend, he or she would need to provide written notice.

The plan does not go into effect if the ticket holder decides not to attend out of fear or concern for contracting the virus.

The air station is also working with its Naval Public Health Medical Officers to determine what additional COVID-19 mitigation measures are needed to be put into place beyond the standard CDC guidelines such as wearing a mask or social distancing, officials said.

The air station is also reserving the right to cancel the event outright if needed.

“As we draw closer, if MCAS Beaufort determines we can’t host an air show safely for attendees, staff, and performers, a decision will be made to cancel or modify the event,” the email stated. “However, given the current safety measures in place and the event being more than 90 days away, at this point in time we do not feel this is the case.”

If the show is canceled by the Marine Corps prior to gates opening, it will refund any purchased tickets, it said.

The air show is scheduled for April 24 and 25 at MCAS Beaufort.

Above: Members of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team perform at the 2015 air show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. Photo by Bob Sofaly.