BILLINGS — After about a year of waiting, public events are back in full swing at MetraPark in Billings, with the facility hosting both the Eastern A Divisional Basketball tournament and Billings RV and Boat Show and Sale Wednesday, and more to come on the calendar.
“We’re excited about having events again. We were joking around and it was like, well how do we do this, because its been so long since we’ve been able to do a regular event," said Ray Massie, marketing director for MetraPark.
Massie said MetraPark staff have been following COVID-19 policies set out by Gov. Greg Gianforte, which offer few restrictions but encourage businesses to follow industry best practices and Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“We have a lot of activity beginning to happen. As far as the safety precautions, we certainly follow whatever the governor tells us we need to do and we maintain these rules," Massie said.
The Montana High School Association, which sponsors the tournament, has imposed occupancy limits and requires fans to wear masks. Other events down the road, however, will have their own COVID guidelines.
MetraPark employees in crowd control and concessions will continue to wear masks at events, Massie said. Patrons are encouraged to wear masks, but aren't required to.
A group of shows and events are scheduled to take place inside the First Interstate Arena over the coming months. They include a Toby Keith concert that was originally scheduled for 2020, a weekend of Professional Bull Riders events and other family shows.
Promoters for different events could choose to follow more strict COVID-19 mitigation protocols if they choose and MetraPark staff would accommodate them. But for the most part, promoters follow the lead of state officials, Massie said.
“We tell (promoters) what the original rules are for the state and county, then they can determine to be more aggressive at establishing rules than what ours are. But in general, most promoters will follow the lead of the governor’s office and the county health department office in terms of what they do here at the building," Massie said.
Massie said the Toby Keith concert won't be as socially distanced as other events scheduled for Metra due to the fact that tickets have already been sold. The Professional Bull Riders events and others are worked out on a case-by-case basis to determine how people will be seated and how many tickets are sold.
"It will be a little more crowded than a traditional social distancing event would be, but it’s not going to be 8,500 people in the arena. That won’t occur for that show. The same thing for PBR, we’re working with them to establish an appropriate amount of attendance for the arena in order to keep people safe," Massie said.
Above all, Massie said staff are thankful that they were able to keep their jobs through the pandemic. Staff were able to find smaller "fix up" projects in the arena and on the grounds to take care of while there were minimal events.
Massie said some other arena operators he's in touch with were forced to lay off their staff during the pandemic and have been finding it tough to get things back up and running again.
“That’s not easy. You’re restarting your facility, your business from zero. This business doesn’t ever really stop. We’ve been constantly moving things around for the past several months to get ahead the dates in which we could clear from a health department standpoint and make it safe for people to come," Massie said.
Across the MetraPark grounds at the Expo Center, people could tour 157 boats and campers for sale at the Billings RV and Boat Show and sale put on by Bretz RV and Marine. Operations manager Dustin Bretz said the RV show was one of the last to go on in 2020 before they stay at home order and everyone is excited to be back.
"We’ve been kind of locked up with COVID restrictions all of last year and this is our first big event of the year and it’s really been exciting," Bretz said.
In the first one and a half days of the sale, about 700 families had come through the doors of the Expo Center to see the big toys. Bretz said on a normal year, only 200 families generally come through on the weekdays of the sale.
“Generally we get a couple hundred on those first two weekdays. So we’re up three to four times in traffic right out of the gate," Bretz said.
For COVID policies, the RV show staff all have a mask in their pocket and will put it on if a customer asks, Bretz said. All the RVs and boats are sanitized with a fogger every night and there are six staff members spot sanitizing surfaces throughout the day. Patrons are not required to wear masks.
There are plenty of places to hide away in a camper or drop the boat in the water in Montana, and people sure took advantage of that during the pandemic.
Bretz said sales boomed for his business last year.
“Last year, our sales were up dramatically and we had an unbelievable amount of first-time campers and boaters getting into the industry and wanting to get into the lifestyle and go play," Bretz said. “If it had wheels and a furnace and a fridge for an RV, somebody was going to take it and go camping. And the boats, we literally sold out of boats mid summer last year."
Bretz said there's still plenty of RVs and boats to go around this year due to the company's good relationship with manufacturers. But those manufacturers can only make so many campers and boats per year. Bretz said there may be another season of high demand if 2021 is anything like 2020 when it comes to the camping industry.
“We foresee if the industry continues to grow, that mid summer there will be more shortages on RVs and boats and I think that is just going to be a reality for 2021," Bretz said.