Sun ’n Fun is about halfway through its six-day return after being canceled in 2020, and overall, the show has been a total success, well, almost total. Attendees and exhibitors, performers and volunteers seem all delighted to be doing a live aviation event again. I am so happy that I came to the show. We needed it. I needed it.
But as much as I am glad to be here, the event is not without its question marks, big ones, too, the biggest of which are these.
Attendance: Crowds the first few days were really thin, so where were all the attendees? When Sun ’n Fun head John “Lites” Leenhouts told the media about early on Tuesday just before the official start of the show, he assumed—we all did—that those sales would translate into crowds. They haven’t. So far, there’s not a good explanation for this, though there are a few theories.
First, the people bought tickets but haven’t shown up, at least not yet. If that is indeed the case, and it appears to be, then how do you explain it? Some ticket buyers may have wanted to come, so they reserved a spot and are waiting to hear reports about how things are going. It sounds like a good explanation. It’s plausible, anyway, though it’s hard to understand how so many thousands would put down a couple of hundred dollars, or more, for the trip and then not arrive.
If the crowds swell to near-record size, or even normal levels, we’ll have at least known that there was something behind the surge that so far hasn’t been. If not, this one just might remain a mystery.
But that might not matter, because as we witnessed first-hand and as vendors reported to us, sales are humming, as people put down, to quote one of them, “…some serious coin.” This jibes with Leenhouts’ Thursday morning briefing, when he said that fly-in and camping numbers are through the roof. Which matches our sense that the percentage of people here in Lakeland who are active pilots is the highest it’s ever been.
The Hangars: Here’s the backstory on this one. We’ve been hearing since the early part of last year that the worst place to be during this pandemic is in an enclosed space with lots of other people right around you. That is the very definition of the exhibit hall experience at Sun ’n Fun. So it was clear that Sun ’n Fun would have to do something to limit the number of people inside these enclosed spaces and to increase the distance between exhibitors in order to limit potential exposure. And to keep people safer even under those safeguards, they would also need to enforce some kind of mask requirement.
None of these things have happened.
But saying that begs the question: Did Sun ’n Fun really think they were going to be able to control the crowds in the exhibition hangars or did they just pretend that they would be able to?
In all fairness, once those halls were opened on Tuesday, there was nothing that Sun ’n Fun could have done short of closing them down to keep the crowds down or the masks on. Even the laissez-faire state of Florida doesn’t recommend such close-quarters inside gatherings. Groups larger than 10 are discouraged. So, did Sun ’n Fun go against those recommendations in opening the halls, all of which were filled with just under the usual numbers of exhibitors? They sure seemed to be flouting the recommendations, again, not orders but suggestions. Was it safe for them to do that?
The answer, again, is probably impossible to know for sure, but it’s likely that despite Sun ‘n Fun letting the people do what they wanted to do, the risk was low. With just over 20% of eligible Americans vaccinated, the obvious but incorrect extrapolation would be that 80% of the folks in the hall were unvaccinated. My guess is that it was probably the other way around, or better. That is, I wouldn’t be surprised if better than 80% of the folks in the halls this week are vaccinated. If so, the halls were, epidemiologically speaking, pretty safe places to be, even with few masks being worn.
Maybe our little corner of the world we call flying is, when off doing our thing with other pilots and aviation nuts, a lot closer to herd immunity than anyone might have suspected.
That’s the assumption I’m making, and I’m hoping it plays out that way.