Montana Western takes on Oklahoma City in NAIA Championship

Montana Western fans cheer in the fourth quarter of the NAIA Women's Basketball Championship game at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

BILLINGS — As a new coronavirus continues to spread around the U.S., large group events scheduled at MetraPark are still scheduled to go on as planned — including the NAIA Women's Basketball National Championship beginning March 18.

Canceling the six-day collegiate tournament is "not even anything that’s on the table right now,” VisitBillings executive director Alex Tyson said. An NAIA spokesman pointed to a statement issued Saturday saying that no championship events are canceled. 

Montana has no documented cases of COVID-19, the new coronavirus that's sickened people in 34 U.S. states and killed almost 4,000 people, mostly in China. Still, public health officials have acknowledged it's likely that the disease will spread into the state. 

The NAIA, an athletic governing body like the NCAA, has asked venues that host its tournaments to make some tweaks, like adding hand sanitizer, having public service announcements about hygiene, offering towel service for athletes to reduce person-to-person contact, and increasing a "health care presence" in case of an emergency. 

Perhaps the most visible change will be in switch from a pregame handshake between teams to a fist or elbow bump. Sick athletes are required to stay away from their teams. 

But so far, Billings seems immune to a growing trend of event cancellation across the country. 

The University of Washington canceled in-person classes through March 20 as the Seattle area has been one of the hardest hit in the U.S. by the virus. Other schools like Stanford and Princeton have also canceled in-person classes. 

Major event cancellations include SXSW, a major music festival in Austin, Texas; tech conferences held by Google and Facebook; and the St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston. In Montana, the highest grossing art exhibition and sale of the year is postponed out of concern for the spread of coronavirus. In countries like Italy and China, where the virus has hit hard, major athletic events have been canceled, and large swaths of the countries have been locked down. 

In Montana, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls announced Monday that its annual Russell Exhibition and Sale, originally scheduled for March 19-21, is postponed. The event is Montana's highest grossing art exhibition and sale of the year.

Ray Massie, MetraPark's marketing director, said that the venue is working with the county's unified health command and following its general recommendations to encourage good hygiene practices like hand washing. 

“We’re aware of it. We don’t want to make a bigger story than what it is,” he said. 

There haven't been any changes for plans to host the State Class A Montana High School Association basketball tournament March 12-14, he said. 

Tourism officials bill athletic events that draw out-of-towners into Billings, like the NAIA tournament, as a shot in the arm for the local economy. Billings has held the tournament since 2017. 

The NAIA release did note that the group is maintaining flexibility going forward. 

“We are considering multiple contingency plans as this situation evolves,” said Jim Carr, NAIA President and CEO, in a press release. “The association will continue to be guided by the information available from local, regional, state, and national public health entities. Should circumstances change, we will consider all options, including admissions and seating restrictions as deemed appropriate."

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