Clay County Fair is a blueprint to a successful return to sold out public events

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Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry was quick to express his emotions after attending the sold-out Machine Gun Kelly concert April 23 at Daily’s Place and sold-out Ultimate Fighting Championship 261 the next night at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

The posted three words on Twitter that said it all: “We are back.”

MGK attracted more than 5,500 fans. The fight drew one of the biggest crowds in arena history – 15,269, including Tim Tebow, Myles Jack, Antonio Brown, Tom Brady, Megan Fox, Machine Gun Kelly, Gardner Minshew, Blaine Gabbert and UFC founder Dana White.

It wasn’t just a big deal in Northeast Florida. The nation took notice of both nights.

Most celebrated it as a return to normal. After being shut down for more than a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis leveraged his political career by opening restaurants, stores, schools and arenas. While most at the concert or fights weren’t wearing masks, we hope DeSantis’ vision still is proven correct – for the sake of all residents and not for political reasons.

His faith in the numbers and insistence an “Open for Business” may be the best medicine to beat the coronavirus.

So far, it’s hard to argue DeSantis’ approach.

“Welcome to Florida: you guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom,” DeSantis said. “This is going to be the first full-throttle sporting event since Covid hit, indoor, anywhere in the United States. I think it’s fitting. We wanted to be safe, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes at you from media, from social media, all this stuff. Some people don’t like to handle that. Dana White goes right into the teeth of that.”

The last seven-day average of positive COVID-19 tests in Florida was 6.1%. New York, California and Michigan have the same 6.1% mark, but all three of those states have varying degrees of lockdowns still in place.

UFC said more than 50% of the fans attending the fights came from out of state, primarily from states where bands can still only play virtual concerts and sporting events have no or a very limited number of fans.

Saturday night’s fights were the first with fans in the United States for UFC since March 7, 2020. Florida is open and ready for business. And for now, it appears to be doing it safely.

While last weekend’s events were a long-awaited, much-needed boost to the local economy – and mentality – it’s still important we don’t drop our guard with the virus. Many of us have been vaccinated. Others still know to keep their distance. Some of us still wear our masks. We can’t stop now. We’ve come too far to start over.

We rejoiced hearing music and watching men and women savagely beat each other. Chris Weidman was carried from the ring when his right leg snapped when one of his kicks was checked by Uriah Hall just 17 seconds into their middleweight fight. We also marveled at UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman’s thundering right hand in the second round that knocked out challenger Jorge Masvidal before he hit the floor.

Now we wait to see if our excitement was premature. It usually takes as much as two weeks for the COVID-19 virus to be identified. These next two weeks will be very important to Florida’s future.

After opening its doors to a record crowd of 148,000 fans during the 11-day Clay County Agriculture Fair nearly a month ago, health and emergency management officials have carefully watched the county’s numbers since. According to Heather Huffman, the director of the Clay County Health Department, there were 30 possible cases reported that were linked to the fair. That’s 30 out of 148,000.

White, who’s railed against those who were against fans returning to the arena, was impressed by Florida’s open-door policy. He even blasted one of his hometown newspapers in Las Vegas last week for warning people to stay away from Jacksonville for the fight. He also promised to return to the First Coast for future pay-per-view main events.

White told reporters after the fights, “People seem like they’re happier down here in Florida than they are in some of these other [bleeping] states.”

As we look forward to a summer filled with more concerts and family outings, we still have to be smart. We don’t need is a relapse that results in more sickness and death, but sends us back into seclusion.

The overwhelming success of the Clay County Fair – both in attendance and with its successful COVID-19 precautions – is a reason to believe we’re well on our way to beating the virus. But we’re not there yet. There’s no reason why we can’t be smart and happy at the same time.

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