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INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis celebrated the city's largest event since the pandemic began as it hosted the opening round of the men's NCAA Tournament this weekend, but revelry surrounding the games is causing consternation among public health experts.
A packed crowd of mostly young adults without masks gathered for an outdoor watch party at the Bottleworks District. One uneasy security guard estimated more than 2,000 people were crowded between two jumbo screens at either end of the block.
It's a stark contrast to what players, coaches and support staff have faced under the NCAA's health and safety protocols. Saturday night Virginia Commonwealth's first-round game against Oregon was called off three hours before it was set to begin. Multiple VCU players tested positive for COVID-19 in a 48-hour period.
Meanwhile, tournament attendees gathered in crowded tents outside restaurants downtown, where drinks flowed and flat screen televisions broadcast games.
Most people said they felt safe, especially at the games, where facilities are restricted to 25% of their normal capacity or less. The busy downtown streets drew vendors who have seen little business over the past year, from pop-up clothing retailers to a troop of Girl Scouts selling cookies.
But gatherings such as the one at Bottleworks worried public health experts, who fear they could undermine the rigorous health and safety protocols the NCAA and Indianapolis officials have put in place to keep the tournament safe under unprecedented conditions.
"This pandemic is not over yet and everybody is acting like it is," said Dr. Richard Feldman, a former state health commissioner. "There is a feeling of false security."
He said the danger is not necessarily the NCAA games themselves. "The danger is in what happens before and after the games," he said. "The partying. The crowded venues. People gathering in larger groups. These are mostly younger people that have not been immunized. This could very likely create an uptick again in the number of cases."
But the urge to socialize as the city tries to pull off hosting the entire men's college basketball tournament simply proved too strong for many Hoosiers, even those who recognize the potential risks of COVID-19.
Revelers at the Bottleworks, for example, included health care professionals.
Enrique Caraballo, 23, and Ciara Sultzer, 26, both nurses for local hospitals, said they were aware of the public health risks of the event, but they are both fully immunized so they decided to come anyway.
"I think people just want to get outside and be social again," Caraballo said. "I mean, we've been inside for so long. I know that sounds ironic coming from us because we're both nurses."
"We're like, 'Get outside, have fun, just don't come to the hospital,'" said Sultzer.
"Realistically, it's a bad idea," Caraballo said. "But we're social creatures and we just want to get out and have fun. And I mean, that doesn't make it right, by any means, but it's just the way it is."
IndyStar, part of the USA TODAY Network, reached out to a spokesperson for Bottleworks, but did not receive a response.
'We dispatched inspectors'
In a joint COVID-19 update held March 11, Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department Director Virginia Caine said they were confident the event would be safe – as long as visitors and residents acted responsibly.
Hogsett said businesses understood “short-term, we've got to really make some inroads on that young, college group because of the rise we're starting to see gain is long term pain.”
When asked about Saturday’s crowd sizes and density, Mark Bode, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the city remained committed to residents’ and visitors’ safety.
“In addition to the protocols already in place around the city, we will continue to encourage the basics of mask-wearing and social distancing,” he said in a written statement to IndyStar. “We are in regular contact with the Marion County Public Health Department as they monitor developments and use public health enforcement measures as necessary.”
Aliya Wishner, spokesperson for the health department, said officials were working with event organizers and partners in public health and safety to ensure festivities were held with adequate safety measures in place. She said enforcement measures have been stepped up, adding “after being notified of a potential public health hazard, we dispatched inspectors to make sure critical safety measures are followed."
New coronavirus cases in Indiana have fallen to fewer than 1,000 a day, but some states including neighboring Michigan have seen cases start to rise again, said Gabriel Bosslet, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.
"If I'm honest, I think we're letting our guard down too quickly," he said. "But who knows what's going to happen? I don't think anybody knows."
While hosting the entire men's NCAA tournament is a huge opportunity to showcase the city, he said "the timing is really, really odd."
"We are really close to, hopefully, to the end," he said. "But I don’t know. Other states around us are starting to surge. The uncertainty is just absolutely stifling."
A boost for local businesses
After a slow year, traffic to downtown bars and restaurants has seen a significant boost in the tournament’s first days.
As of March 1, bars are allowed to operate at 50% capacity for bar seating instead of 25% and restaurants can have 75% capacity for indoor seating, up from 50%. Outdoor capacity remains at 100%.
The District Tap saw a rush of customers Friday starting around 11 a.m. The wait was an hour and a half – and stayed that way into late evening.
“It's like a being shot out of a cannon in a good way,” general manager Jeff Huron said.
The District Tap saw some increase in traffic from volleyball tournaments held in January and February, Huron said, but Friday's March Madness rush seemed to be as busy or more so.
"Indianapolis downtown is convention-driven, sports-driven and event-driven. Without any of those things happening in much of the last year, it was much slower," he said. "We've seen our business just over the last couple of months triple."
IndyStar's Alexandria Burris and Tim Evans contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: NCAA Tournament could lead to COVID case uptick in Indy, experts say