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Virginia venues operators propose reopening plan: 'We can be part of the healing process'

“Let us go. Measure us. Evaluate us. Hold us accountable."
Richmond Flying Squirrels
Posted at 7:44 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 23:35:04-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the president of RMC events, Dan Schmitt has no other choice than to be a people person.

“Anything that involves a human at an event we can pretty much handle,” Schmitt said.

His 2,200 employees are the ones you see in the yellow jackets at most sporting and entertainment events, doing everything from parking cars to taking tickets and ushering to seats.

After 9/11, the industry changed a great deal, but COVID has brought new challenges never before considered.

“We already, five months ago, started training COVID protocols to our staff,” Schimtt said. “All 2000 of them. PPE training or how to be safe with regards to social distancing.”

Problem is, most of Schmitt's workforce has been sidelined. With venues either shut down or severely limited over the past year, there hasn't been as much of a need for his company's services.

"Some of the folks that work for us, hundreds of them, are using this supplemental income to put a kid through college. Some are paying their car bills with the. Some are paying their mortgages and their rent,“ he added.

That's a familiar refrain all across Virginia.

“To see people that are now just about a year on either completely gone from our team or still waiting for a phone call to come back, or they're only able to come back in a part time capacity,” said Kevin Lembke, the president of Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. “That's been the most difficult part and the most trying aspect of this whole thing.”

Busch Gardens missed all of last summer, and their guests missed them. Same goes for the Flying Squirrels and baseball across Virginia, as well as Richmond Raceway, which did not have a single fan come through it's gates for the first time since opening more than 70 years ago.

“It's important to have those connections with our fans and those connections are made right here at the racetrack,” said Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond Raceway.

“We can be part of the healing process,” added Todd “Parney” Parnell, the COO for the Flying Squirrels. “People miss us. People want to come to these events. Safely. “

The Squirrels and the Raceway have joined more than 60 other venues across the Commonwealth in drafting a plan they believe will allow more fans to return to events in the very near future. It's called percentage based capacity, and using the state health department's own metrics for positive cases and vaccinations, lays out how these venues can allow people back to live events.

“As the health metrics get better, new cases come down and vaccinations go up,” Schmitt explained. “We're able to work on percentages of venues to give a nice steady climb.“

Percentage Base capacity.PNG

The percentage plan takes into account the total number of people that could be at an event, making it more equitable than a flat number limit. It would allow bigger places like Busch Gardens and the Raceway to use the space they have while still maintaining social distancing and enforcing COVID protocols.

“We feel strongly that we can operate at a reasonably high capacity and still do it safely,” said Lembke. “More than we are today.

“We're taking acreage and how many square feet belong to a person and then spacing that out to be socially distanced and safe,” Schmitt added.

Governor Northam announced Wednesday that a straight percentage plan could be in effect by April 1 if the health metrics continue to improve.

“There is a recognition that there are some very large venues out there that can safely accommodate more,” said Clark Mercer, who is Northam’s Chief of Staff.

And in the process, take another significant step towards a return to normal.

“We're not going to press the governor and health officials to do this, and then mess it up,” Parnell said. “We're going to do it right.”

“The folks we've worked with have been extremely thoughtful and they don't want to open things wide open without the protocols being in place,” Mercer added.

“Let us go,” Schmitt pleaded on behalf of the group. “Measure us. Evaluate us. Hold us accountable, and let’s do it in a way that matches the health metrics. It makes sense."

The first events that could test this plan are NASCAR races at both Martinsville and Richmond scheduled for April. After that, most of the minor league baseball franchises in the Commonwealth are set to begin their seasons in May.

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