How sports venues became hospitals
From New York City to Alaska, arenas and stadiums converted into temporary medical centers or support facilities are providing relief to over-taxed hospitals and helping frontline workers battle the coronavirus. It’s the ultimate test in logistics, requiring coordination and cooperation between teams, vendors and local, state, and national agencies.
While higher-profile venues such as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have garnered attention, the Army Corps of Engineers has quietly finished more than 1,127 of 1,177 planned site assessments to determine which facilities could be used in the effort. Beyond sports facilities, the list includes convention centers, college dormitories and hotels.
The campaign had cost $1.84 billion through April 25 to lease and transform the facilities screened by the Army Corps. So far, 40 of those overall have been selected, accounting for about 15,000 extra beds. The corps is in the final contracting stages with 15 more sites, with more prospects under consideration. Additionally, several other venues have been used by local elected and health care officials for testing (see charts below).
Kevin Kelley, who leads Husch Blackwell’s arena and stadium development practice out of the law firm’s Denver office, said that in most cases venue owners or operators are paid by the federal government to set up the medical facilities and most of the terms of the agreement are usually non-negotiable.
Kelley said he had heard some venues were asking the corps to indemnify them from possible legal action if workers or visitors to field hospitals set up on site fell ill from the coronavirus. The corps declined to go through with this process because of time considerations and the nature of the emergency, he added.
“They [federal government] can take it, so you don’t have a lot of leverage on what you’re agreeing to, you can’t make a lot of demands of the federal government or corps of engineers in these situations because if they want to they can do an emergency taking,” Kelley said.
In New York City, the hardest hit area in the U.S., the National Tennis Center’s indoor training center was converted into a 475-bed facility to handle an overflow of patients from Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital.
“Queens is the epicenter within the epicenter for the city,” said Danny Zausner, COO of the National Tennis Center. “And Elmhurst Hospital is the hardest hit hospital in the city, and we’re 3 1/2 miles away from there.”
The process of converting the tennis facility into a field hospital started in mid-March, during one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s news conferences, Zausner said. “He was on TV doing this press event every day, and he made mention of the fact that based on the models that they were doing, it looked like they were going to need somewhere between a million to 2 million square feet of incremental hospital bed space within the five boroughs of New York City,” Zausner said.
Soon after that news conference, Zausner received a call from the head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management asking about the possibility of turning Arthur Ashe Stadium into a field hospital. However, the stadium lacked enough flat space, so Zausner suggested the indoor training center, which has 12 tennis courts.
“We have tons of outdoor field courts, but they need indoor climate controlled space,” Zausner said. “So they came out the next day. It was probably a contingent of about 12 people from various city agencies.”
Two days later, New York brought its disaster relief contractor, Galveston,Texas-based SLS, to start the conversion, Zausner said. The city paid for the conversion.
The USTA, which has a 99-year lease with New York City to operate the National Tennis Center, is also working with its food and beverage vendor Restaurant Associates to package and distribute meals from Louis Armstrong Stadium for frontline workers at the Jacob Javits Center, which also has been transformed for medical use. The stadium is supplying 25,000 meals a day for New York City public school children who rely on city-provided breakfast and lunches at their schools, which are closed. Restaurants Associates has been working with city agencies to distribute the meals and the city is covering the cost.
In Houston, a parking lot on NRG Park’s campus, home to the NFL’s Texans, is being used as an overflow hospital for patients. Harris County, which owns the property, has erected tents and temporary structures to house patients. The decision to use the parking lot instead of the stadium or one of the park’s two arenas stems from the decision for an early shutdown of the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in March.
“We just got through with the rodeo, we had dirt still in the building when we first started talking about this, and they were really concerned that you’ve got people with respiratory problems and putting them in an environment that was less than hospitable for respiratory problems,” said NRG Park general manager Mark Miller. “So through the process, it just made more sense to do it outside, full control of the air quality, and set it up outside with tents.”
Designed for a crisis?
Russ Simons, a managing partner of Venue Solutions Group, a Nashville-based consulting firm that teams and sports facilities hire to improve their building operations, said he hopes new or renovated sports facilities in the future will incorporate design elements that will help them easily convert into disaster relief or medical facilities.
“It would be my hope that this will lead into conversations with architects, designers, and [mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering] systems professionals to say, ‘Hey, what else do we need to do? What else might we consider if we have to make sure that these buildings are going to be called upon to serve the communities that they live in and they serve in these alternative ways?’” Simons said. — K.D.
Spectra Venue Management has two of its sports arenas, Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University and Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., converted into overflow hospitals.
Corey Margolis, general manager of Angel of the Winds Arena, said Snohomish County is using the facility to quarantine people who are positive for COVID-19 or might have been exposed and need to isolate somewhere safely. The Liacouras Center is being used as a field hospital with 180 to 200 beds, said general manager Joe Sheridan.
Both executives said a unique challenge of converting their arenas into medical facilities was making sure their buildings’ HVAC systems were set up to prevent the virus from reaching and contaminating other areas of their venues.
“Besides converting a 10,000-seat basketball arena to a federal medical station in less than two weeks, we also really had to keep in mind the safety of our employees and all the workers,” Sheridan said. “Everything from security and access points to patient care, which is the most critical item, we had to run concert-style trussing all across our arena that holds access to oxygen and power to each bed. So, it’s unbelievable to see the way our arena looks today versus what we’re used to in hosting a basketball game or a concert.”
Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who was the chief executive of Texas’ most populous county for 12 years and helped oversee the process of housing over 20,000 evacuees escaping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Houston’s Astrodome, told Sports Business Journal that he sees some parallels between Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a similar process, it is just utilizing different resources, but you don’t have debris trucks going up and cleaning the streets and you don’t have people being moved into apartment houses and the like,” Eckels said. “You still activate the same groups, you bring in the various entities, whether it’s the state, the local, the federal, the private sector that provides support,” Eckels said. “Right now we have everyone here from whiskey distilleries in Houston that are making a hand sanitizer to support these kinds of operations to FEMA workers coming in to help make sure the paperwork’s right and that we can get reimbursed for a lot of the costs that are involved with it.”
From the arenas’ and stadiums’ loading docks and kitchens, Eckels said that sports facilities also have the infrastructure to handle disasters and emergencies relatively well.
“During Katrina we had the ability to bring in the regular catering services from Aramark, we were able to have essentially what you might do for a football game,” he said. “We were able to activate it on a very short order with some really good vendors and SMG and Aramark were able to get everything ready and prepared in 14 hours for the first busloads of people that start showing up from New Orleans.”
It also helped that Harris County owned and controlled the Astrodome, which allowed local officials to act fast, Eckels said.
“We could come in there and take it over. We could not do that with the Rockets and the Toyota Center and the major league baseball park, Minute Maid Park for the Astros, because those are both controlled by the teams.”