National Guard members at the Javits Center in New York City, where they are building field hospitals inside the convention center. (Getty Images)

Convention centers become field hospitals, homeless shelters

Hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the venues industry is nonetheless serving communities in their time of need, with some being used to house field hospitals and others accommodating homeless populations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard will construct four 250-bed field hospitals at the Javits Center in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced. The facility will eventually be able to handle 2,000 patients amid an expected surge of those needing treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Three other pop-up hospitals are being constructed in the state, including one at the Westchester Convention Center.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that pop-up hospitals, each with 250 beds, will be built at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison, the Atlantic City Convention Center and one more at a site that had yet to be determined.

Part of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland was set up to house about 130 homeless people under proper social distancing conditions. 

Similar situations were playing out elsewhere, including at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas, where an arena, exhibit hall and other parts of the facility were being used, and in Anchorage, Alaska, where the homeless are being housed at Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Indoor Ice Arena.

In San Diego, officials announced that parts of Golden Hall and the San Diego Convention Center will be used to help shelter the homeless to help prevent the prevent the spread of COVID-19 among that segment of the population.

“We recognize the importance of supporting the most vulnerable among us, including those who are unsheltered, and we look forward to using this community asset to serve our neighbors in need,” Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe, the convention center’s president and CEO, said in a statement released by the city.

Golden Hall will be used first, followed by the convention center, according to officials in San Diego, where homeless shelters and other service providers have seen a 30% to 50% workforce reduction as a result of the novel coronavirus.

Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers, said public assembly facilities are serving a crucial role in responding to the coronavirus outbreak even as they are among those suffering the biggest economic impacts.

Food from canceled events is being donated to those in need, including part-time workers idled by event cancellations and postponements, as are crucial supplies from toilet paper to protective gloves and other items that facilities won’t need in the short term.

Some venues are serving as quarantine areas, others have become drive-through testing sites, and some are being used as staging points for arriving supplies so that different organizations using them in the coronavirus response can come in to pick them up, Mayne noted. 

“I’m really proud of our membership,” he said. “Not only are (the venues) great economic assets to their communities, they are places where people can gather in times of trouble. They become an incredible asset for those communities they are in, and local authorities are using them for a lot of purposes.”

Venue operations skill sets such as the logistics of moving equipment and materials in and out, managing large staffs or crowd control fit well with current needs, Mayne said.

“This is where our members shine. They step up and become leaders and do everything that they can to help those who are in need and to look after those who are less fortunate.

“Venue professionals fully understand their responsibilities and the stewardship that has been given them, that they have assets that can be used (and) to make sure that they get used for the right purpose.”