200,000 people expected at SUN ‘n FUN, epidemiologist weighs in on COVID-19 risk


LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Organizers proudly exclaim this year’s SUN ‘n FUNAerospace Expo is expected to attract a “substantially larger” crowd than ever but experts warn it may come with some risk.

“Our advanced ticket sales were 30% higher than we’ve ever seen ever, in the history ofS UN ‘n FUN,” said John Leenhouts, President & CEO of the Aerospace Center of Excellence which oversees the expo.

Organizers were forced to cancel the April 2020 event at the start of the pandemic.

“Our sales were up. We were so excited and then to have it just taken away from us – it’s as if they took Christmas away,” said Leenhouts.

Organizers spent the last year following the changing guidelines on COVID-19.

They landed on some pandemic-era policies, including a loose mask policy.

“The mask requirement is only if you want to, it’s not required. We are requiring you to have one to go into a building. You don’t have to keep it on if you don’t want to once you’re in there but you have to have it on when you get in,” said Leenhouts.

Hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations can be found throughout the property as well as a COVID-19 safety team available to answer questions.

“We’re on 2,000 acres of property out here so it expands exponentially all over the campus. There’s so much room. Unless you want to come up and hug somebody, you don’t have to be close to anybody,” said Leenhouts.

International visitor numbers are down. Many large corporations are still not allowing employees to travel so the expo saw a 20% drop in exhibitors.

Leenhouts said the FAA would revoke a pilot’s license if it discovers a pilot flew while having symptoms.

“The Federal Aviation Administration is really really strict on the rules governing your medical well-being when you fly an airplane. You don’t dare get in an airplane if you have any symptoms of illness whatsoever,” he said.

The annual event provides 75% of the revenue for the Aerospace Center for Excellence, which provides STEM education to aspiring young aerospace enthusiasts in the area.

People have flown in from almost every state for this year’s event.

“You can’t live your life in fear. We take precautions and stuff,” said Steve Johnson who traveled from the Houston area.

“It feels great to be around people again,” said Mike Leahy, from Illinois. “One, it’s outdoors and two, we’ve had our vaccinations. Between the two, we feel fairly safe.”

“The question is timing and when is it the safest,” said Dr. John Greene, chief of infectious diseases at Moffitt Cancer Center.

According to Dr. Greene, experts say a safe threshold for community spread of COVID-19 would be 10-20 cases per 100,000.

“In Polk County right now, it’s 26 cases per 100,000,” said Dr. Greene. “The community levels are still high and of course, you’ll have people flying in from all over the country, possibly the world, so there is still some risk there.”

However, Dr. Greene would have advised organizers to hold the event because of the size of the property and the fact that most of the activities are outdoors.

“The key thing that’s reducing risk is the open outdoors and the vaccination level of the crowd,” said Dr. Greene.

The event runs through Monday.

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