The Waste Management Phoenix Open

The Waste Management Phoenix Open can draw over 200,000 fans in a single day in a typical year, but organizers are expecting to host just 5,000 to 8,000 attendees daily at the February 2021 event due to COVID-19.

For the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the show must go on, but the typically crowded golf tournament will have a very different feel in 2021 as organizers implement safety protocols and drastically cut back admissions due to COVID-19. 

The event has still drawn criticism, though, for hosting in-person crowds as case numbers and hospitalizations continue to surge across the state.

The tournament, scheduled Feb. 1-7, will scale back admissions by as much as 96 percent, according to estimates from the Phoenix Thunderbirds, the Valley charitable organization that runs the event.

“The numbers are still fluid based on conversations with the PGA Tour and the City of Scottsdale, but I think ultimately if we could land at a range between 5,000 to 8,000 fans a day total for the tournament, that would be a home run for our organization and in turn local charities,” tournament Chairman Scott Jenkins said.

That’s a significant decrease from a typical year, when the tournament can draw over 200,000 fans in a single day, with 16,000 of those at the popular 16th hole alone.

Tickets are already on sale for packages for the 16th hole and the organizers will announce a decision on the availability of general admission tickets in the coming weeks.

The Thunderbirds have scaled down the 16th hole as well.

This year it will feature a single-story, open-air venue instead of the larger, indoor structures that usually surround the hole

“We’re working with them on a new floor plan and making sure we have the square footage, so we can socially distance people and have everybody have a bunch of room,” Jenkins said.

The event, which partnered with Mayo Clinic, has also implemented mitigation protocols to combat virus spread, Jenkins said.

Temperatures will be taken upon entry, and all event goers will be required to wear masks unless they are consuming food or drinks.

“It’s very similar to what we’re all experiencing in restaurants,” Jenkins said. “If you’re moving, you’re wearing a mask; if you’re actively eating and drinking, then it’s tough to do with a mask.”

That part of the plan caused concern for Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, because of the Open’s reputation as a party hub.

He questioned how the typical atmosphere at the tournament could impact compliance with safety rules.

The Phoenix Open is famous for its party-like atmosphere and the alcohol-fueled behavior of some attendees.

In 2018, sports website SB Nation labeled the Phoenix Open “golf’s most democratic and obscene event.”

Humble said that based on that past behavior, he is not confident compliance will be high.

“So, you can say there’s masks required, but then you say ‘Oh, unless you’re having a beer,” Humble said. “That’s like saying ‘no masks.’”

In a press release announcing the event’s new structure, the Thunderbirds emphasized the drastically-reduced admissions, scaled-back 16th hole and noted the “192-acre layout of TPC Scottsdale and the outdoor nature of the tournament is conducive to social distancing.”

Humble acknowledged that an outdoor event like the Phoenix Open is safer than at any indoor venues.

“Outdoors is always better than indoors, that’s for sure; in fact, it’s 17 times safer than indoors,” he said.

But Humble said, even with outdoor events, the devil is in the details and it will be up to event organizers and the city to ensure fans are abiding by restrictions.

He said there is low risk if people are walking hole to hole but that changes if a glut of fans flock to the 16th hole and engage in high-risk activities like yelling and cheering.

“Let’s say the 16th hole is going to be 3,000 out of the 8,000 people, and they’re all crammed together; even though it’s outside that’s a potential, super spreader event even though it’s outside, because you’re not moving around.”

Jenkins said the Open did not currently have a specific percentage of the daily attendees that would be admitted to the 16th hole, explaining, “We’re just not there yet.”

But tournament organizers expressed confidence in their ability to “mitigate risks” for players, fans and volunteers.

Ultimately, if the decision is made by local health officials to allow spectators, it will be a small fraction of the normal capacity at TPC Scottsdale and not any different from what many other professional sports are currently allowing across the country,” according to the Thunderbirds’ release. “The health and safety of fans is our top priority.”

Unless something changes in the coming months, it appears state and local regulators will allow events to continue.

In December, the governor stipulated that cities must post any approved event’s safety plans publicly and dedicate resources to ensure they are enforced.

The safety plan for the Phoenix Open has not yet been posted to the City of Scottsdale’s website.

Scottsdale has continued to allow large events and youth sports tournaments in line with the Governor’s orders, with few cancellations.

The Barrett-Jackson collector car auction, the city’s other signature winter event, pushed its 2021 auction from January to March.

Right now, a voluntary rescheduling appears off the table for the Phoenix Open due to scheduling issues with the PGA Tour, according to city staff.

“That date is set for TV and sponsorship. Barrett Jackson was able to move because we had (a) slot open in March that could accommodate this event, the Thunderbirds have only this one slot. Their charities benefit from the tournament and that involves Scottsdale charities,” a Scottsdale official said.

Jenkins said the Open – which raised $14 million last year for area charities – was a reason why the organization decided to move forward with in-person attendance.

“With the reduced attendance and the COVID environment, we’re not going to hit that $14 million number, but that’s why we made the decision to try to have fans, because that’s how we raise the money that we do,” Jenkins said.

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