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Going Direct: Despite COVID surge, Sun ’n Fun Plans For In-Person Event Going Forward

The annual show draws many tens of thousands of attendees. Can it happen safely? We don’t see how.

Sun ‘n Fun 2019. Photo by Dan Faenza.
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Déjà vu, right? Last year at this time, things were pretty much hunky dory. We knew that the virus existed, but few really thought it would upend life around the world, causing more than 400,000 deaths in the United States in less than a year and cancelling the vast majority of public life around the country and around the world. Sun ’n Fun itself got cancelled, but not before its organizers put up a fight to try and make it happen despite the fast-emerging virus.

Since then, dozens of other air show events have been cancelled, including Oshkosh AirVenture, the NBAA bizjet convention (which is huge), the Aircraft Electronics Show, Aero Friedrichshafen in Germany, the Paris Air Show and Heli-Expo (twice now, actually).

Now that everything is better and the virus is no longer an issue….as if. The rates of infection are soaring, and hospitals around the country are swamped with COVID cases. Daily deaths—daily!—are surpassing 4,000 with regularity, and a new variant threatens to supercharge the virus’ already potent spread.

With all of this dire news right now, the one bright spot is the vaccine, two actually, with one more closing in on the finish line. Still, will a critical mass of people be vaccinated in time for Sun ’n Fun to do its thing? Not even. The rollout has been problematic, and far fewer have gotten shots in the arm than the previous administration had hoped for. Really, a more realistic question might be, will enough people be vaccinated in time for Oshkosh to open its gates in late July? If I were a betting woman, which I kind of am, I would put my money on the virus at this point and hope that I’m proven wrong.

So why is Sun ’n Fun going ahead with its plans? It not only seems risky for all concerned, but it also seems unlikely to come off as hoped for. In the past week alone, several prominent aviation shows have cancelled their planned live events for this spring. Do the Sun ’n Fun organizers know something that other planners don’t? Obviously, they do not.

One factor could be the show’s location in Florida which, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, has been resistant to aggressive anti-virus policies. So Sun ’ Fun will, in all likelihood, be able to legally host a big show, something it could not do in many other states.

I won’t speculate on financial incentives, but the loss of last year’s event was devastating to the organization that hosts Sun ’n Fun. Some have speculated that even if the show doesn’t succeed in terms of the numbers of visitors or exhibitors, that putting it on anyway would be financially advantageous in terms of insurance coverage or other factors. It’s possible, though Sun ’n Fun organizers have made no such suggestions.

Can they indeed pull it off, though? It’s really doubtful. For starters, will people go? I did an informal poll of friends in aviation, and I have yet to find one who says that they think they’ll attend. A few work for companies that might ask them to go, but that’s a dicey situation for all concerned. If you ran a big company, would you ask your employees to go to an event that will almost certainly be held in close quarters during a highly active stage of the pandemic? It’s a rhetorical question. And if I worked for a company that gave me that assignment (which I don’t), I would decline.

And I will decline to go to Sun ’n Fun this year. Again, it’s not even a debate. I won’t be vaccinated, and though I don’t have pre-existing conditions (that I know of) that would render me more at risk of the virus, there have been many, many thousands of formerly healthy people my age, and younger, who were killed by this thing. Going makes no sense. It’s what I said last year, too.

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It does make sense to postpone the show until the fall, though the calendar will be jammed with other events doing the same thing. If it’s safe to do events by then, I’d absolutely opt for Lakeland. Lots of other folks would, as well. 

Another obvious option is cancelling the event for this year, focusing on 2022 instead. Can Sun ’n Fun hang on until then? It’s the exact question that people and business owners around the country and around world are asking about themselves, too. And nobody has a good answer for that one.

At this point, “hope” is the watchword for us all.

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