Why even more equestrian competitors are expected at this winter's events in Wellington
Kristina Webb Palm Beach Post
WELLINGTON — The novel coronavirus pandemic won’t stymie the upcoming equestrian season in Wellington — or its effects on the local economy, organizers say.
With many European competitions canceled because of the pandemic and positivity rates in Palm Beach County continuing to improve, organizers of the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Adequan Global Dressage Festival expect more riders, more horses and a bigger economic impact for the village.
Last year’s Winter Equestrian Festival was cut short by two weeks as local officials ordered closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But a shorter season didn’t mean less money for Palm Beach County businesses.
An analysis of last year’s Winter Equestrian Festival commissioned by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission found the 10-week event brought nearly $290 million and more than 3,000 jobs to the county.
That’s expected to grow in the coming season, with demand for participation so high that Equestrian Sport Productions added two weeks of competition to both its Winter Equestrian Festival and Adequan Global Dressage Festival, said Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions.
“Our November and December shows are going to be the biggest we’ve ever had,” he said.
The competitions could see three or four dozen more competitors just from Europe, where indoor events have been canceled because of COVID-19, Stone said.
“But it’s hard to know yet” just how many more European competitors will travel to Wellington this season, because of continuing restrictions on who can enter the U.S. during the pandemic. Each person coming into the country must receive a waiver through the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee, and then receive approval from the Department of Homeland Security, Stone said.
The influx of competitors really depends on the spread of COVID-19, he said.
“The only thing that would stop them is if the virus is too bad,” Stone said.
To protect competitors and support staff once they arrive in Wellington, Equestrian Sport Productions in the spring implemented a slew of measures to prevent the virus’ spread.
To develop the guidelines, Equestrian Sport Productions combined recommendations from the state, county, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Equestrian Federation, Stone said.
That includes limiting access to the showgrounds at both the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center off Pierson Road west of South Shore Boulevard and the Equestrian Village on the northeast corner of Pierson and South Shore.
Only people directly involved with the competitions are allowed on the grounds, Stone said. The number of people who can accompany each athlete is limited, “reducing numbers significantly,” he added.
Notably absent this year: The grand competitions held under the lights on Friday and Saturday nights and open to the public. While the competitions will go on, the fanfare — including live performers, food vendors and a carousel imported to the U.S. from Italy by Equestrian Sport Productions owner Mark Bellissimo — will be gone, with no spectators in attendance, Stone said.
“It’s going to be difficult, but our core staff, we’ve kept them through the whole thing,” he said. “We haven’t had to let anybody go.”
Masks are required for everyone on the grounds, and all who enter must pass through a thermal imaging scanner that checks for fevers, Stone said.
The precautions have kept cases low, he added. Within the first two weeks back to competition in the spring, a barn owner reported a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in a groom.
The barn owner pulled all staff from the competition, and Equestrian Sport Productions notified everyone who had been in the barn with that groom, Stone said.
“It didn’t go any further,” he said.
While some competitions still will take place under the lights on Saturday evenings, most will happen during the day, opening up nights for 5,000 to 6,000 people involved in the events, Stone said.
Equestrian Sport Productions sees this as a possible “boon” for local restaurants.
“We think from an economic viewpoint, this is a good thing for the village,” Stone said.
Even with last season cut short by two weeks, the analysis done by the sports commission shows people who participated in Wellington equestrian competitions spent nearly $140 million in the county, and visitors who came to the Winter Equestrian Festival spent about $34 million.
Many teams remained in Palm Beach County even after the competition shut down early, as people were hesitant to leave the area and head to other locations where the virus could have spread more aggressively, including New York, Stone said.
For those who still want to take in some of the world-class hunter-jumper action taking place during this season's competitions, Stone said Equestrian Sport Productions is upgrading its broadcast technology to provide better live coverage of each event.
People will be able to watch the "SportsCenter-type production" from home, he said.
While the coming season certainly faces challenges because of the pandemic, organizers remain optimistic thanks to the results of the economic analysis.
"The fact that we did so well in a year when we had a pandemic, I think we were pleased with it," Stone said.