By Kaitlin Thorne

The second annual Fall Explosion Demolition Derby was held at the Athens County Fairgrounds over the weekend, drawing a largely unmasked crowd to the outdoor event.

The Derby was held on Saturday, Sept. 19 and was hosted by the Athens County Agriculture Society and The Plains Volunteer Fire Department.

Athens was one of the few places to hold a demolition derby this year, as most have canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to this, the Derby grew significantly in its second year.

Event organizer Mickey West stated that last year 50 cars entered and 1,500 people come through the gate. This year, 125 cars entered and 2,700 people came through the gate.

“A lot of the cars came from an hour-and-a-half, to two hours away,” West said.

The additional people left many attendees waiting in a long line of cars along Union Street just to get into the venue. Once inside the fairgrounds, the crowds were asked by event organizers to maintain social distancing and to wear masks while in the grandstands. Regular announcements were made and signs reminding patrons of these suggestions were posted throughout the fairgrounds.

Currently, public venues are operating at 15 percent capacity, this amounts to 300 attendees at the Fairgrounds. Due to the outdoor nature of the Fairgrounds, the Agricultural Board applied for a variance with the Athens City-County Health Department.

“The Athens County Fairgrounds is an outdoor facility that encompasses 33 acres of available space to adequately social distance. Due to the size of the available green space we can comfortably offer standing room only to our patrons and still successfully meet social distancing guidelines,” the variance request reads. “Bases on the fixed seating limitations of our grandstands and the current track layout there is ample space and opportunity for expanded, socially distanced standing room only seating in the horse track infield as well as the horse track itself. After reviewing the requirements set forth in the order, we believe we can apply those same requirements to the increased capacity and still have more than enough room to effectively socially distance.”

On the variance request, the total number of anticipated patrons is listed as 750, with the venue capacity level being 1,000. That is 1,700 less people than the 2,700 who actually attended.

The plan submitted with the variance request details how the event organizers planned to adhere to social distancing protocols.

“Our plan calls for standing room only patrons to bring lawn chairs or blankets; those groups will be socially distanced by identified fair board staff upon arrival,” the request stated.

The plan did not mention how social distancing would be maintained in the grandstands.

The plan was approved by the Health Department, who then sent it to the Ohio Department of Health for final approval, which was granted.

During the event, the grandstands were mostly filled, and mask-wearing was not universal, with the majority of patrons choosing to remove their mask in the grandstands.

“We didn’t have 100% masking compliance and that’s the goal,” Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper said.

The Fairgrounds are private property, creating an administrative quandary for enforcing mask-wearing. West states that though masks were “mandatory” at the gate, they were told by the Health Department that they could not enforce it and that masks were more of a “suggestion.”

According to Pepper, it is accurate that the Health Department cannot enforce the mask ordinance, as they are not a law enforcement agency.

“It’s the Fairboard’s responsibility to abide by the ordinance,” Pepper said, stating that though he was at the Derby on Saturday, it would have been “extraordinarily difficult” to for the Health Department to enforce the masks at the event.

“I do think that they were trying hard to do the social distancing as we asked,” Pepper said, stating that as the evening wore on, social distancing lessened.

The Derby, which started at 6 p.m., went until 2 a.m. upsetting neighboring members of the community who took to social media to complain. The noise would normally be in violation of the Athens City Noise Ordinance, which states that on weekends between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m., noise must be kept at a minimum.

Enforcement for these issues lies in the hands of the police force. Though when called by the Messenger, both the Athens County Sheriff’s Department and the Athens City Police stated the Fairgrounds are in the other department’s jurisdiction. The Messenger reached out to both for clarification, though no confirmation had been received at the time of printing.

The Fairgrounds are within the city limits, but they are on private property, meaning the city should have no jurisdiction within the Fairgrounds. This has been a topic of conversation over the last year, as Mayor Steve Patterson requested that the Agricultural Board ban the sale of confederate flag merchandise, as the city could not ban the sale on the private property. The Board declined Patterson’s request.

The lack of mask-wearing at the event brings into question the spread of COVID-19 in the community. As previously reported, the fastest rising demographic for COVID-19 cases are those aged 20-29, leading many to blame college students for the recent increase of cases.

However, the attendees of Saturday’s Derby were not confined to one specific age demographic, rather the crowd spanned from children to senior citizens.

This brings to light the idea that anti-mask attitudes are not generational, but rather a result of “herd mentality,” another way of saying that people are more likely to go along with behavior in a group that they would not normally do on their own. Given the overlap between college students and Derby attendees being large groupings of people.

“It’s unfortunate that the attendees or the public did not adhere,” Pepper said.

When asked if this event could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases soon, Pepper states that he hopes not.

“There is risk involved in all the choices we make when we go into the public these days,” Pepper said.

The Derby has given the Health Department an example for events going forward.

“We’ll use this experience as a learning experience and we’ll take that into consideration when we evaluate other plans moving forward,” Pepper said.

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