Maybe not so close this year...
The world has changed in the two years since more than 300,000 spectators last flocked to the banks of Charles River on an October weekend to watch some 10,000 athletes compete. And, since losing the 2020 Head of the Charles to COVID, regatta officials and volunteers have worked alongside public health professionals to develop a host of pandemic-related protocols in an effort to ensure the return of the regatta will be a safe one.
Leaders from the regatta have been meeting with experts at Massachusetts General Hospital, or MGH, since the beginning of 2021 determined to make the most informed decisions ahead of the return of the in-person race.
"We had a great group at MGH that was very knowledgeable about the medical side of things, but they don't know the regatta," said Bob Mannino, a member of the race operations committee who is heading the COVID-19 protocols project. "My role was bringing them up to speed on the nature of this event because obviously when you're putting together guidelines and recommendations they need to know how the regatta works."
Mannino is a 20-year regatta volunteer who has served as race director, and in recent years has been something of a special-projects guy for the regatta; this year he worked with leading infectious diseases experts from MGH. "We gave them tons of information on the regatta, including a lot of documentation," Mannino said. "We also put together an interactive map and gave them a tour of the entire regatta area. When we got to a specific place you could pull up pictures of the area, so in terms of social distancing and things like that they could see what was going on."
The pandemic is ever changing, which makes planning an event of this size even more complicated. As the Delta variant was on the rise, Mannino said they spent an entire meeting with MGH discussing the variant and what to do about it.
The regatta is a primarily outdoor event, spread across a wide geographical area and a long time window, lowering the risk of exposure. Mannino said he wants participants and spectators to remember that regatta organizers did their best to construct well-informed protocols with the guidance of experts.
"We value people's safety. We went out and got experts, because we don't have this expertise ourselves," Mannino said. "We're instituting a lot of things involving social distancing, and people just need to be patient because it may lead to some delays at registration and other areas, but it's important for people's safety."
One of the most notable changes to the event is the mask requirements. Masks, securely covering the nose and mouth, will be required in the boathouses and in some large capacity tents, in keeping with Boston's indoor mask mandate. Organizers have also encouraged unvaccinated or immunocompromised people to mask outdoors. Volunteers will be required to submit proof of vaccination against COVID-19, and the regatta has strongly encouraged all rowers to get vaccinated.
Social distancing is encouraged whenever possible and hand sanitizer will be available at official HOCR sites and the registration tent. If a participant shows symptoms of COVID-19, Mannino says they should isolate and get tested.
Registration and awards ceremonies will also look different this year - with registration windows designed to help with social distancing efforts and capacity limits on awards ceremonies. But the feeling heading into regatta weekend is one of optimism when it comes to COVID.
"There have been a couple other large sporting events held, most recently the Boston Marathon, and that seemed to go well," Mannino said. "Given that experience we're feeling pretty good about it but we want to be vigilant, careful and make sure that we're holding a safe event."
Give everyone a little space