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Columbus' Arnold Sports Festival Bars Spectators, Cancels Expo Due to Coronavirus

A photo of Governor Mike DeWine
Gov. Mike DeWine announces the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival will bar spectators from the athletic competitions and will cancel the Arnold Expo.

The Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus has become the largest mass gathering in the U.S. to be all but cancelled because of coronavirus. The biggest multi-sport event in the world will not allow spectators at competitions and its huge fitness expo has been canceled.

Pam Waugh is the owner of Body Fit Training Facility in Grove City, just south of Columbus, where she's currently training several fitness athletes like 18-year-old Masie Swackhammer.

a photo of Pam Waugh training Renae Goodwin in a gym
Pam Waugh, owner of Body Fit Training Facility, trains Renae Goodwin

Waugh has been preparing Masie for the Bikini Competition at this year's Arnold Sports Festival. Waugh and Masie had been anxiously waiting to find out if the growing concerns over the coronavirus would impact this year's festival.

Then Gov. Mike DeWine joined Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther to make an announcement.

"We have all decided to move forward with the athlete competition at the Arnold Classic, but not to allow spectators or the trade show to continue." DeWine made the announcement in response to the CDC's newest guidelines for large events and mass gatherings addressing the potential spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

And the Arnold Expo is certainly a mass gathering. It attracts more than 200,000 people from 80 countries, which DeWine said creates an unacceptable risk.

"The circumstances at the Arnold are ideal for the spread of disease. The fact that the Arnold mainly takes place in a confined, indoor space creates an environment that is much more conducive for the spread of the virus."

The Arnold Sports Festival, which happens during the Arnold Expo, features a variety of competitions from martial arts to bodybuilding. There are more than 22,000 athletes expected to participate.

Athletes from China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan will not be permitted to compete in the festival. These are countries on the CDC's travel notification list.

Columbus Public Health Commissioner Mysheika Roberts said they are also screening athletes as they arrive at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport. "And asking them certain questions about exposure to COVID-19, whether they have a fever in the last 24 hours and if they've come from one of the affected countries."

Media representatives for the Arnold Sports Festival did not return a request for comment.

Brian Ross with the tourism group Experience Columbus said it's too early to tell how canceling the expo might impact economic turnout, which usually generates about $53 million. However, Ross says they're reaching out to other attractions like the Columbus Zoo and museums to see if they can offer discounts for people planning on going to the expo.

"We can get out into the community now so they can have a different experience while they're here," Ross said.

So far, Ohio has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

With Mayor Ginther beside him, DeWine said he recognized the weight of this decision, adding that addressing coronavirus concerns means constantly staying on top of the facts and making the best call that they can.

"The two of us took an oath to protect the people that we represent and that's why we're here today with this decision."

Back at the Body Fit Training Facility, coach Pam Waugh said the excitement is building for her and Masie as they get closer to competition day at the Arnold Sports Festival.

"Just like Masie, she's got all the confidence in the world but when we get there we'll probably be going like 'ahhh!'" And Waugh learned later that night that she will still be able to go watch Masie compete since a special exemption will be made for trainers and parents of athletes.