By Russ and Tiña De Maris
When we published stories prior to this year’s Quartzsite RV Show, we received mixed reactions. Many of our readers said they’d stay away from the big show, fearing opening themselves to a COVID-19 infection. Others scoffed, with a “have no fear” attitude – some even questioning the reality of COVID. Was it really possible to get COVID at the Quartzsite RV Show?
“Every January something happens that is hard to believe, unless you have seen it! According to the Arizona Highway Department, as many as 750,000 to 1,000,000 people, mostly in RV’s, converge on this sleepy little desert town, located just 20 miles east of the California border on Interstate 10, for the rock, gem and mineral shows, plus numerous flea markets and the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show.” So reads promotional material for the show, which has been running more than 40 years.
Picture, if you will, a huge circus-like tent, filled with throngs of show-goers. These eagerly peruse wares and services pointed largely at the RVing public. It’s been that way for seeming ages. But when COVID-19 popped up early last year, one of the first questions that came with it: What will become of the Quartzsite RV Show? The answer came in August. We wrote that show promoter, Kenny King, and his co-promoter, daughter Kimmy King, declared the show would go on. Safety precautions would be taken, and the final approval would still have to come from the town’s government.
How big an event is the show? By Kenny King’s estimate, the January 2020 show (just prior to the US COVID-19 outbreak) was close to 150,000 people. The show runs a total of nine days, and by the Kings’ estimates, the first day of the show is probably the day of the largest draw. They acknowledged this when, as part of this year’s safety protocols, they posted information on social media to show-goers to NOT come on the first day, if possible.
Show safety protocols, according to a permit request to the Town of Quartzsite, included “mandatory face coverings” for all connected to the show, including vendors and attendees alike. Aisles through the big tent were widened and traffic limited to a single direction. Managers set up plastic dividers “between all exhibitors’ selling areas.” These and other measures were put in place to keep everyone secure. So, how well did that work out?
COVID at the show?
Mark Silver and his company, Industrial Lock & Hardware, [Disclaimer: They advertise with RVtravel.com] signed up for a vending area at the show this year, as he has done in the past. We contacted Mark, asking for his observations about the size of the crowd. We got a whole lot more information than we expected.
In terms of attendance, Mark wrote by email, “The show was noticeably smaller than normal years in exhibitors and attendance.” He figured there were probably a third fewer exhibitors. If the same held true for attendees, then a reasonable number to guess that came through the doors was in the neighborhood of 100,000 people over the nine-day run. Promotional material for the planned 2022 show says this year’s event drew from “100,000 to 150,000.”
If 100,000 visitors came to the show, and they were spread out evenly over the days, we’re talking about 11,000 people a day. But as Mark Silver observed, “Many times the show was crowded – the first few days for sure.” By his estimate, most people, probably 90%, observed the “face masks mandatory” rule. That leaves, say, 10% of 100,000 who didn’t: possibly 10,000 unmasked folks, milling around in fairly close quarters over the length of the show. Could someone get COVID at the Quartzsite RV Show?
“Deeply disappointed in myself”
Mark Silver says “yes” – someone could get COVID at the show. Writes Silver, “Being completely honest, I’m deeply disappointed in myself for attending, and upset that the show promoters allowed the show to open.” Why? “The truth is, I was infected during the show myself.” Silver tested positive for COVID-19 on January 27, three days after the show closed. “I wasn’t feeling great the last few days of the show,” he writes. “But I honestly thought I had the common Quartzsite crud that I get most years – Quartzsite is cold, dusty, and exhausting work – so I really didn’t think it was more than that.”
Mark’s wife, a registered nurse with 44 years’ experience, wasn’t feeling particularly well either. She contacted her primary care physician, and he recommended she get tested for COVID-19. Mark went with her. They both were tested: hers came back negative, his positive. Mark’s wife, as a nurse, had already received her COVID vaccine series; Mark had not. He’s now in isolation.
Followed safety protections
We asked Mark what he’d done to protect himself from COVID while at the show. Mark told us he’d stayed in his own RV, just a couple hundred feet from his booth. During his time in Quartzsite, prior to the show, he had little contact with other people. He also took a box of face masks with him to the show, and changed out to a new one each day, carefully wearing a mask at all times when at the show venue. He tells us he also used hand sanitizer constantly, and wiped his display products down with sanitizing wipes after show-goers touched them.
While there were indeed plastic dividers between vendor stalls, no such provision was made to fence off vendors from contact with show goers – that was a “recommendation” made by the show’s promoters, but not a mandate. Says Silver, “I tried to keep my distance, but it’s impossible to keep six feet apart at a trade show.”
Mantra: “Events are ongoing”
Prior to the opening of the show, we contacted Quartzsite officials regarding their views on the potential hazards of large crowds during a pandemic. Assistant Town Manager Cliff O’Neill put on a cheery face. “Events are all ongoing!” Pressed about the potential for disease transmission, O’Neill repeatedly told us that the town had reviewed the show’s safety protocols and that they were happy with them. “Events are ongoing,” he repeatedly told us, almost like a mantra.
Since Arizona state law requires local approval of events where more than 50 people are expected to attend, the show had to make official application, and receive approval before opening. Such was the case with the King family RV show. We’ve examined their application. In addition to a description of their safety plan, a question reads, “Anticipated Peak Attendance on Site at Any One Time:” Signatory to the application, Kimmy King, left this blank.
Interestingly, on the official summary page of the “List of Approved Organized Public Event Applicants,” the column that reads “Estimated Guests,” someone, presumably a Quartzsite official or town employee, entered “500/day.” If we (or a snooping state official) were to believe this, then the Quartzsite RV show would have had a maximum attendance of 4,500 people – far from reality.
Another “approved organized event” application we perused was for the Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama. On his application, promoter Kym Scott did fill in the question regarding the anticipated attendance at any one time, listing “7,000 – 10,000.” On their official summary page, Quartzsite officials appear to have taken it on themselves to do a little editing. Here the town suggests “500+.”
What was town attempting to do?
It begs a question: Just what were Quartzsite officials attempting to do? Scaling the numbers far back from reality could certainly make the chances of a “super-spreading” event appear far smaller. And it neatly covers its bases. Each event promoter is required to sign off on a “public event permit and hold harmless agreement.” Should anything, we mean anything, blow up, from personal injury to death to anyone at any event, the town is assured they can’t be held accountable.
COVID at the Quartzsite RV Show? Not a problem for the town, at least in terms of legal liability. You can find the approved list of applications here. Click on each “event name” to read the underlying permit application.
If Mark Silver’s unfortunate case of COVID-19 did, in fact, spring from some contact he made at the Quartzsite show, then what’s the likelihood that there are others who suffered a similar fate? Even health care workers who have the advantage of advanced personal protective gear, and who use it as directed, have come down with COVID.
Mark evidently took all the right steps to protect himself and still suffered. What about the possible 10,000 unmasked show-goers? Where do they stand? Could some of them, too, have gotten infected with COVID at the Quartzsite RV Show? And with their not wearing masks, how many more could they potentially expose? Time will tell. Meanwhile, we wish Mark Silver a speedy, complete and uneventful recovery from his illness.