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ST. PETERSBURG — The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is still scheduled to run this weekend, but it will do so in front of empty grandstands, for a television audience only.
A mayoral decree, made Thursday in the name of public safety in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, bars spectators from the event. Those hoping to take in IndyCar with their senses will have to rely on only their ears to catch the high-pitched buzz of the machines as they zip through downtown.
The duality of a fan-free race weekend began to play out Thursday afternoon around the 1.8-mile street course.
While crew members from IndyCar Series powerhouse Team Penske tinkered with their cars in the paddock, another Team Penske crew had a much different job a few hundred yards away: packing up merchandise. With no fans allowed to attend, no one will be around to buy T-shirts or hats.
“I think there isn’t one person that’s standing behind me that wouldn’t love to be sitting in the stands watching that green flag fly,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said at a Thursday afternoon news conference, flanked by a number of city and race officials. “But that isn’t where we find ourselves today.”
Where they found themselves on Thursday was a far different place from where they were just 24 hours earlier.
On Wednesday morning, Kriseman and Grand Prix officials said they planned to hold the 16th annual event as scheduled, spectators and all. Then leagues across the country started postponing sporting events, canceling them completely or at least holding them without fans. President Donald Trump that night restricted travel from Europe over coronavirus concerns, and the World Health Organization declared a coronavirus global pandemic.
As importantly, Kriseman said, Florida health officials announced someone with the virus attended Daytona Bike Week, an outdoor event comparable to the Grand Prix, and that another person with the virus attended an emergency medical services conference in Tampa. Those factors all led organizers and city leaders to ban spectators from the race — one of the biggest annual sporting events in Tampa Bay and a crown jewel of the IndyCar Series.
Kriseman also didn’t rule out canceling the race altogether if the coronavirus situation worsened.
“Our hope is that what we’ve announced (Thursday) is what ends up happening the rest of the week,” Kriseman said, “but we’re going to continue to monitor things and adjust it if we have to.”
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Coronavirus, technically called COVID-19, produces flu-like symptoms such as fever and respiratory infection. Most at risk of developing life-threatening complications are those who are elderly or who have underlying respiratory issues or a compromised immune system. Globally, nearly 130,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus, and more than 4,700 patients have died.
Race officials could offer ticket holders no immediate details on refunds. Promoter Kevin Savoree said any compensation information would come next week. Racing begins Friday, and the main event of the weekend, the IndyCar season-opening race, will air Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN.
IndyCar’s Mark Miles said it was the best outcome, given the circumstances.
“We believe at IndyCar that we ended up in a good spot...” said Miles, president of the Penske Entertainment Corp. that owns the series. “We accomplished a lot of what we set out to do.”
Postponing the event to another date would have been impractical, if not impossible. The track takes 250 workers and 25 days to build; doing it again would be challenging and require buy-in from the city, which loans its public streets to the race. A rescheduled event would also have to slide into a different TV window.
Instead, the Grand Prix is set to run, likely with an altered schedule. With the NBA, NHL, PGA and MLB and college sports all paused, the race will join NASCAR as the nation’s only major sporting events still taking place this weekend.
“It’s really about (limiting) mass gatherings,” Kriseman said. “The teams are already here. The competitors are already here in town. This isn’t a situation where we’re a week out and nobody has come here yet. They’re all here.”
The closure of the race to spectators hurt fans and vendors alike. Track workers covered concession stands with blue tarp and packed up plates, drinks and fry containers while bemoaning the loss of thousands of dollars in expenses and lost sales.
IndyCar fan Matt Klempa and his family spent $600 to fly in from Philadelphia. With more warning, the 27-year-old said he wouldn’t have come at all. Now he’ll have to settle for hearing the cars hum through downtown.
St. Petersburg attorney David J. Abbey had 32 seats to share with friends, clients, colleagues and neighbors from the area and at least three other states.
“I am disappointed I will not be able to attend the St. Pete IndyCar race for the first time,” Abbey said, “but I regret losing the three days of fellowship and laughs much more.”
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