Even if they executed their jobs flawlessly during the pandemic, Hoosier public health officials would be sure to make some people mad.
Restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 have knocked some firms out of business, after all. And the Marion County mask mandate, while lauded by some, constitutes government overreach to others.
Given such sensitive dynamics, it’s essential that those officials lead with a steady hand, setting well-thought-out policy driven by facts and science. Sound decision-making in one area helps build support and acceptance for decisions in others.
We bring all this up because we’re flummoxed by how poorly the Marion County Public Health Department has handled setting capacity limits for events at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Those limits have real, dollars-and-cents consequences for the two teams playing there this fall, the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and the USL Championship league’s Indy Eleven. But it seems as if the department is acting arbitrarily and winging it as it goes.
Here’s the backstory: On Sept. 4, the Colts announced that the attendance limit for its first home game, played Sept. 20, would be 2,500, a figure arrived at after weeks of negotiations with the health department.
On Sept. 15, IBJ published a story highlighting the disparity between that figure and the more relaxed policy governing the Eleven, which had no specific capacity limit. Instead, the team and health department agreed to limit ticket sales to every other row, with at least 6 feet between each group of seats.
In theory, that would put capacity perhaps as high as 10,000. Through seven games, the team had been averaging about 5,500 fans, though announced attendance is often higher than the number of fans actually showing up.
The health department didn’t respond to a request for comment for the Sept. 15 story. But the next day, it cut the Eleven’s home-gain attendance limit to 2,500.
The health department didn’t say why or how it reached its decision to limit the Eleven’s seating capacity, rather than increase the limit for the Colts.
All this would be frustrating enough for the Eleven, whose business model is heavily reliant on ticket sales. While ticket sales are meaningful for NFL teams, the league’s biggest revenue source is broadcasting rights, which bring in $5 billion a year.
On Sept. 17—one day after setting the 2,500 limit for the Eleven—the health department raised the attendance limit for the Colts’ second game—to be played Sept. 27—to 7,500.
In an email to IBJ on Sept. 21, the health department noted that the seven-day average of new COVID cases had recently declined, as had positivity rates—though the changes were not as drastic as the shifts in attendance limits. The next day, it raised the fan limit to 7,500 for Eleven home games.
We don’t begrudge the health department for setting limits. Big crowds can fan the spread of the coronavirus, and many NFL and USL Championship teams aren’t permitting any fans to attend.
But the sudden shifts fuel a perception that health officials are pulling numbers out of a hat, rather than making carefully thought-out judgments.
Fans mulling whether they’d like to attend games and team owners trying to run their businesses amid a historic health challenge deserve better.•
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