Jorge Robles, right, buys popcorn from employee Celia Santiago at the Megaplex Theatres at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City on Thursday, June 18, 2020. After three months of temporary closure due to COVID-19 restrictions, Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres are resuming modified business operations. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Megaplex Theatres decided to open amid the coronavirus pandemic. As national chains wait to reopen, is Megaplex seeing success?
SOUTH JORDAN — I walked into the Megaplex Theatres at the District in South Jordan on a recent Saturday night to feel a sense of normalcy. A waft of popcorn, salt and butter crashed on me like a wave. It was a smell I had not experienced since March.
I stood in the lobby and looked around to see a closed food court, normally bustling with hustling employees cooking meals. A “Mulan” poster hung on the back wall like a framed painting in a haunted house. The rolling audio of upcoming movie trailers lingered about like haunting memories of what once was, and what is to come, all at once.
A touch of sadness filled me. I’m not ready to see a movie in a theater yet. And I probably won’t until the pandemic ends, or until there’s a vaccine. But standing there — in an empty lobby that would normally be bustling with the electric energy of a Saturday night — it made me wonder if Megaplex, which opened its doors during the pandemic, has found any success with its decision to reopen early — ahead of the major players.
So I spoke with Blake Andersen, Megaplex Theatres president, in a phone interview about the movie theater and how its experiment to reopen during the pandemic has gone. And so far, Andersen had nothing but praise for how his theater chain has responded during the pandemic. But he admitted it’s still a long way from normal.
Megaplex announced it would reopen on June 18, which I wrote about for the Deseret News. The theater said it would only show a number of older films. Face masks weren’t required but encouraged. And the theater promoted social distancing, constant hand hygiene and sanitation.
So far, it’s worked, Andersen said. There have been no reports back to the theater about potential COVID-19 cases.
“Absolutely none of that,” he said, “which has just been just so wonderful and a testament to the job the team is doing, the sanitization procedures we’ve put in place.”
So what is it like going to the theater? It’s hands-free, if you want it to be. You can walk into the theater, pick your seat and buy your ticket on an app, scan the app and walk right to your theater. You have to wear a mask — specifically if you’re going to see a movie in Salt Lake County, where there is a mask mandate. If you don’t have one, Megaplex provides one. You can take it off when you eat or drink. Otherwise, mask up.
There’s a mix of films to see. You can watch a classic like “Jaws” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Maybe see a relatively recent film, like “Interstellar.” Or even a new release, like “The Rental” — a horror film that recently dropped amid the pandemic. Families have brought their children to the theaters to see some of these classics again, Andersen said.
The theater creates a wide perimeter for you to stay socially distanced. When you pick your seat, the theater won’t let you sit within 6 feet of anyone else. The theater blocks out every other row, too. And Megaplex only allows 50 people into an auditorium. Normally, they seat 300 to 500 people.
Megaplex has also increased its ventilation and filtering procedures, Andersen said. The system was already “incredible” before, he said, but the team worked to “increase ventilation and increase filtration, so that you know it’s even better than it was before.”
Andersen said he has received letters every day or two from people thanking the theater for putting its procedures in place. He said one guy wrote a letter that he had never been to Megaplex before all of these changes. Now, he has come three days in a row.
Financially, Megaplex is awaiting Hollywood blockbusters like “Tenet” to drive traffic to theaters. Megaplex isn’t immune to the loss of revenue. The theater — though running classics and hosting private events still — is meant to host big films, Andersen said.
“Our theaters were built and designed for the big blockbusters,” Andersen said. “So we love that. We need that. I think that’s what we’re all looking forward to.”
The theater doesn’t have a fully operating food court. There aren’t a lot of new movies. The weekend box office numbers are low. But Andersen said there are ways to mitigate the financial losses. And the theater has done that, relative to other national chains. Megaplex recently topped the Hollywood box office for the entire country — a sign that there’s still something of an appetite to see movies again. The theater had the highest grossing numbers of any “hard top multiplexes” at the end of June, according to Deadline,
Andersen said the national success has shown two things: “Utahns have always loved going to the theater and seeing movies” and Utah moviegoers “were confident that Megaplex Theatres would do it right.”
Megaplex has found some financial returns from its private showings. Megaplex started allowing guests to rent out the entire theater for 20 or so people for $375 and watch any movie you want. Cinemark has since jumped on this idea as well. Megaplex provides the movie, the popcorn and the soda for a fee. In fact, Andersen said some people booked to watch the upcoming Utah Jazz games in the theaters, too.
Of course, the same isn’t true for every movie theater. AMC, Cinemark and Regal have pushed back their reopenings to coincide with the release of “Tenet” — a film that was going to be the first major blockbuster release of the 2020 summer but has since been delayed to at least the fall. Most theaters need the steady flow of revenue to remain open. John Fithian, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said a complete shutdown could ruin the entire industry if it lasts too long.
“If the answer is, ‘We’re going to wait until 100% of theaters are open,’ we’re not going to be there until a year from now when there’s a vaccine,” Fithian said. “This is existential for the movie theater industry. If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”
For Megaplex, having a private and local owner helped the theater make decisions faster, giving it a chance to reopen before the major blockbusters hit.
Still, the theater awaits normalcy to return. Much like how I felt during that walk into the theater on Saturday night, Megaplex hopes to see the hustle and bustle of a Saturday night. It hopes the packed theaters return. Though it has seen success so far, Megaplex awaits the complete return to what once was.
“We’re ready and excited to get out and to be able to escape this nightmare we’ve all been living in for the past few months,” he said. “We worked tirelessly to make sure that when we invited people back into our theaters, we could be sure that they would be as safe as they would be in their own living room.”
Incumbent Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes, left, and Democrat Greg Skordas, right, are pictured in this composite photo. | Jeffrey D. Allred and Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Incumbent Republican Sean Reyes holds a 12-point lead over his Democratic challenger in the race for Utah attorney general, but nearly one-third of voters haven’t made up their minds.
The large number of undecided voters gives Democrat Greg Skordas an opportunity to make up ground between now and November, though he faces an uphill battle to unseat a twice-elected Republican.
If the election were held today, 38% of Utahns would vote for Reyes, 26% for Skordas and 5% for Libertarian Rudy Bautista, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. But the survey of 1,000 registered voters found 32% aren’t sure who they would choose.
“That’s a high percentage of voters who are not sure for an incumbent. But it says more about the office itself at this point than it says about the candidates,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute. “These are two candidates that are very qualified.”
Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen conducted the survey from July 27 to Aug.1. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Skordas, a Salt Lake defense attorney and former county prosecutor, expected a bigger gap between himself and Reyes.
“I think it’s encouraging that an incumbent Republican is under 50%. That’s very unusual in Utah, and it means that there’s an opening for us,” he said.
Skordas, who didn’t face a primary election, said he’s planning a “pretty good blitz” around Labor Day to start getting his name out. He said he intends to capture undecided voters by showing the differences between himself and Reyes, who he says has hurt the state on health care during the pandemic and has accepted questionable campaign donations.
“Reyes has sometimes been his own worst enemy. He’s done some incredibly foolish things. I think more are going to be exposed between now and November,” he said.
Reyes, who was first appointed attorney general in late 2013, won a closer-than-expected GOP primary election against Utah County Attorney David Leavitt in June.
“The 2020 election cycle has been strange to say the least,” said Alan Crooks, Reyes’ campaign consultant.
The attorney general, he said, has spent the last several years working hard to get results and protect Utahns across many critical, real-life issues.
“Reyes has pushed back and will continue to push back on the liberal Democrat agenda that would defund the police and be soft on crime,” Crooks said, adding Reyes will work “hard as always” to earn every vote and will run a strong campaign through November 3.
Reyes captured 56% of Republicans in the poll, but 22% of GOP voters haven’t decided. Skordas fared worse in his party, with only 50% of Democrats saying they would vote for him and 31% not sure.
Perry said beyond party affiliation, voters don’t know exactly what the candidates’ policies are at this point or understand what the attorney general’s office entails.
“The first layer of analysis is the political party, but then it comes to ‘and then what, and why would I support these candidates?’” Perry said. “It’s more than just the party. It’s the party plus that people still have to figure out.”
Among those who claim neither Democrat nor Republican affiliation, Reyes has 24% to Skordas’ 22%, but 46% haven’t made up their minds, according to the survey.
There’s no question where backers of President Donald Trump stand when it comes to the Utah attorney general’s race. Among those voting for Reyes, 93% approve of the president, the poll shows. Trump endorsed Reyes earlier this year.
“I think that a lot of people that support Trump are already in the camp of Sean Reyes,” Perry said. “But this critically important 32% of not sure will start to firm up the closer we get to this election cycle and as these candidates make their names known.”
Even with all the undecided voters, Reyes is in a good position at this point, Perry said, adding it’s “exceptionally” hard for a Democrat to win a statewide race. Utah has not elected a Democrat as attorney general since 1996.
LEHI — For parents, the decision of when to give their child a mobile phone can be a vexing question with the challenges of social media, potential cyberbullying and pervasiveness of online child predators.
But a Lehi-based company is offering a solution that can give kids the technology they need to stay connected while also giving parents much-needed peace of mind.
Last week, Gabb Wireless introduced its second-generation kid-safe smartphone with numerous features to help keep them protected while also minimizing screen time. The Z2 Gabb Phone was developed for safe connectivity that urges children to live beyond the screen, explained Lance Black, vice president of marketing for Gabb Wireless.
“We position ourselves as the first phone. Our market or marketplaces is 8 to 15 (years old),” he said. “We’ve got data to show that kids who have Gabb phones spend 80%, less time on screens. We’re a strong believer that the thief of opportunity is distraction. If we’re less distracted, we can accomplish great things. So (have) less screen time and do more cool stuff.”
The Bluetooth capable phone includes 14 essential apps that encourage freedom from distractions such as the internet, games, social media and app stores, the company says. The device retails for about $100 with monthly plans ranging from $20 to $25.
“It’s got fingerprint security, so you can touch to open your phone and GPS capabilities so a child can locate the phone if they’ve lost it and also tracking by parents (to know) where the phone is,” he said. The new device will protect against screen addiction, cyberbullying, inappropriate content and online predators, he added.
“We protect kids on a safe phone, we connect families, we empower parents and we live beyond the screen,” Black said.
The company is also unveiling other products — including a smartwatch — and services as well as establishing partnerships with local organizations that support the message that children should be living beyond the device screen, he added. Among the new partnerships will be an alliance with Defend Innocence — an organization working to eliminate child sexual abuse, and Gabb Ambassadors — young people who act as role models of what kids can accomplish when they limit their screen time.
For Sam Gordon, 17, a Gabb Ambassador and student athlete at Herriman High School, kid-safe devices can be critical tools to protect youth from the perils of virtual life in the internet age as well as helping them pursue alternative positive outlets.
“Outside of just that protecting kids from the harmful things on the internet, the Gabb phones are incredible because they give kids the necessities of everything you need on the phone, while taking away the dangerous distractions of social media and YouTube and the internet,” she said. “Kids can feel safe with their parents having communication, they can have the camera, they can have the radio, but they’ll spend so much less time on the screen and instead can go out and do cool stuff and look beyond the screen.’
She noted the prevalence of social media has become a major point of contention for young people because it can become so consuming that they lose their own sense of reality.
“Social media as a mindset is very harmful to teenagers and young kids especially because people believe what they see on their screen. They believe that other people are living these incredible lives and then they look at their own lives, and then they just get down about themselves,” Gordon said. “That’s such a toxic thing that really causes a lot of problems for kids nowadays. So social media can be great sometimes to spread a message, to create a platform and do good with it. But at the same sense, it can also be bad because kids get unrealistic expectations and it becomes a worry to see how many likes they get and how popular (they get) — it just brings everybody down.”
Edward A. “Doc” Rogers/Library of Congress via Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — When the new coronavirus began ravaging the world, most people had no idea just how much damage a viral outbreak could do to the world’s health, wealth and social fabric.
But a 2004 book by John M. Barry titled “The Great Influenza” chronicles how the 1918-19 influenza outbreak became the deadliest pandemic in history, and it offers both insight and warnings about how to mitigate future pandemics, which the author concludes are inevitable.
It was the book former President George W. Bush reportedly read that caused him to charge Homeland Security personnel with formulating an ambitious pandemic response plan that included a national stockpile of face masks and ventilators, and a process to fast-track vaccines and other treatments in 2005.
While some of that became a reality, many of those things Barry warned about were not heeded, including allocating resources to vaccine development in U.S. labs and making sure all governments report viral and disease outbreaks accurately to the World Health Organization.
Among the issues he cited was the fact that China’s decision to “initially lie and hide” the 2003 SARS outbreak put the world at risk. He asserted that if WHO, led by the U.S., didn’t find a way to make sure all countries accurately report disease outbreaks, an influenza-like virus would, once again, sicken and kill record numbers of people, despite 100 years of medical advances.
The book provides details into everything from the rise of American medicine to how lingering effects of influenza could have led to President Woodrow Wilson’s abrupt decision to accept the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I when he’d consistently advocated for a much different end to the war.
What is striking about Barry’s book is how many similarities there are between the 1918-19 pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. But it is also interesting to look at the differences, and the lessons that Americans didn’t necessarily learn.
The most notable similarity is the controversy over masks.
In 1918, masks were just as controversial as they are in 2020. The difference is that masks were mandatory during the influenza outbreak, and — with the exception of Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties plus Logan and Springdale — Utah and much of the country has relied on only mask recommendations.
The rejection of some to wearing masks as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 is something that has blindsided Utah and national public health officials.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated a mask debate,” said Utah epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn. “It seems so simple.”
The reasons for rebelling against mask mandates in 1918 and mandates or recommendations in 2020 are very similar. Most often cited by opponents is that they see the requirement as an erosion of individual liberties. Others suggest masks may cause illness or that they’re ineffective in stopping the spread of any disease, including COVID-19.
Part of the issue cited is the lack of trust some currently have in health officials, governmental leaders and the media.
But officials in 1918 and 1919 actually issued mask mandates, according to Utah news reports, and for those who violated the rules, there were fines and sometimes arrests and jail time, including a Park City man who was arrested at a restaurant for not wearing a mask. He was held in jail for three days before winning his freedom.
Greg Smoak, the director of the American West Center and an associate professor of history at the University of Utah, said the resistance and debate over the efficacy of masks may be similar, but the masks themselves were quite different.
“They were essentially gauze that would be tied behind your head,” Smoak said of the masks used in 1918-19. “They were old-school surgical masks, and there was a huge debate over them.”
In San Francisco, an “anti-mask league” formed in opposition to a city mandate in the third wave early in 1919. Eventually, city leaders ended the mandate.
“There were even bombings in response to mask mandates,” Smoak said.
Also, just like people in 2020 are searching for ways to boost their immune systems and mitigate any impact the coronavirus might have on them, people in 1918-19 shared all kinds of home cures and remedies, some of which are remarkably similar.
Among those, gargling with disinfectant or breathing in eucalyptus oil or camphor oil, the main ingredient in Vicks Vapor Rub, Barry’s book says.
Distrust and fear
Dunn understands why some people might feel like they’re getting conflicting information.
“Anytime we have a new virus circulating, the information and our knowledge about it is going to change over time,” she said. “Some people see that as being dishonest, when in reality, it’s just that we’ve learned new things.”
In 2020, political leaders, both locally and nationally, have attempted to earn public trust with regular press conferences. This is a stark contrast to how the outbreaks in 1918 and 1919 were handled.
In 1918, Wilson was convinced that the public wouldn’t support the war effort unless the newspapers did, Barry wrote. Therefore, Congress enacted laws that punished anyone who spoke against the war effort, and the press was heavily censored. Wilson never actually made a public statement about the influenza outbreak, which ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 675,000 people.
The inability of the government to give the public honest information bred distrust and fear.
“So the problems presented by a pandemic are, obviously, immense,” Barry wrote in his afterword. “But the biggest problem lies in the relationship between governments and the truth. Part of the relationship requires political leaders to understand the truth — and to be able to handle the truth.”
The undermining of trust isn’t just an issue of trusting one’s own government. It’s an issue of trusting information collected by global groups.
Barry points out that while many governments were prepared for the 2009 pandemic, many political leaders ignored the plans. He said Mexico, Brazil and China all had issues with how they responded to the outbreak because they refused to acknowledge realities. Mexico ended up losing $9 billion because of its mishandling of the 2009 pandemic.
The void of information in 1918 led to many misunderstandings about how it started and how widely it spread. It’s now believed that nearly one-third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died.
Smoak points out that the reason the influenza outbreak was dubbed the “Spanish flu” was because Spain was neutral in World War I, and so its government didn’t censor media reports about the illness.
“Because Spain is neutral, there aren’t those controls over the press,” he said. “Information about the virus gets widely reported, hence the name the Spanish flu. It got tagged as the origin (of the outbreak), but it’s not. That’s related to censorship and control of the press.”
Influenza outbreaks among U.S., British and French troops wasn’t reported, and the realities of how it was transmitted around the world weren’t widely known until years later, according to Barry. The influenza outbreak is believed to have actually started in Kansas.
During the Influenza pandemic there were a number of conspiracy theories, including the assertion that the Germans had created the virus to help them in the war, Barry’s book says. There was even suspicion of Bayer aspirin, and in some small towns, people with German surnames or accents were harassed, and one door-to-door salesman was even killed.
In 2020, the conspiracies also abound, starting with the assertion that the virus was made in a lab in Wuhan, China. Some of the theories include the involvement of Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and former President Barack Obama.
So why do some find conspiracy theories more comforting than scientific theories or facts?
“Conspiracy theories are very comforting to people because they are simple explanations for complicated problems,” Smoak said. “They shift responsibility.”
He said Americans are uniquely susceptible to conspiracy theories.
“We’ve grown up with national mythology that teaches us American exceptionalism,” he said. “If something bad happens, it couldn’t be our fault. There has to be some other explanation for it. And these modern conspiracy theories also play into people’s ideas of science fiction — germs escaping from labs. People wouldn’t have thought about that in the 19th century.”
The truth, however, is often too simple to bring any comfort.
“The more simple answer is that this is a natural process that has occurred countless times throughout human history,” Smoak said, “and it will continue to occur.”
The poor and parades
Just like 2020, the hardest hit were the poorest, including migrant and communities of color. Because quarantine was key to controlling the outbreak 100 years ago, just as it is today, those who live in smaller, more crowded conditions often don’t have a way to separate the sick from the well.
Political unrest gripped the country in 1918, which was caused by Wilson’s decision to enter World War I, and in 2020, it is a racial reckoning. This can create a climate in which the loss of freedom, fear of illness and grief is caused by both human and economic losses.
Smoak said historians cringe when they hear, “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.”
“We wish that people could learn from history,” he said. “But memories do fade, and people move on.”
There are some marked differences as well. Unlike COVID-19 — which is most deadly to those over 65 and with underlying health problems — the influenza pandemic struck down those in their prime, between the ages of 20 and 45.
The influenza outbreak of 1918-19 brought about many changes, both in the way public health officials learned to handle infectious diseases and in what researchers hoping to isolate causes and cures learned through their work, Barry noted.
“The experience of 1918 put in place certain health care infrastructure,” Smoak said. “Influenza wasn’t a reportable disease in 1918.”
Dunn said despite the fact that officials are grappling with some of the same issues, there were many lessons learned by the medical community that had an impact on containing COVID-19 outbreaks in America.
“One direct parallel is not to allow parades” in Utah this year, Dunn said. “When we were thinking of guidelines, parades came up so much. We just kept going back to 1918, and saying, ‘We cannot repeat this and have a surge because of a parade.’
“Very specific examples like that have helped.”
On Sept. 28, 1918, a parade held to support an effort to sell war bonds caused an explosion of the virus, which made its way to the cities through the movement of U.S. troops, most likely the Navy. Even as Philadelphia health officials were warning that people should avoid crowds, politicians refused to cancel the parade, according to Barry’s book.
Two days before the parade, hospitals admitted about 200 people suffering from influenza — 123 of those were civilians. Three days after the parade, every single bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. Philadelphia would become one of the hardest hit cities, as the epidemic exploded from a few hundred civilian cases to hundreds of thousands of cases, Barry noted. Hundreds died every day, and even as officials were quoted in papers saying the epidemic had peaked, new records of sick and dying were recorded.
But it wasn’t just learning lessons on how the virus spread.
Barry pointed out that the number of people who rely on restaurants for food doubled in the century between the influenza outbreak and the writing of his book. As he points out, if all of those restaurants shut down, which they did during 2020’s COVID-19 outbreak, it would do much more damage to the economy than it did in 1918-19.
Barry also noted that the globalization of the economy means the supply chain could be very easily interrupted, and suggested the U.S. needed to look at producing more medical supplies, including vaccines, in the U.S.
Because hospitals are now run like businesses, there are actually fewer hospital beds per capita than there were in 1918, he said. It is not profitable to have empty hospital beds, so most facilities only have as many beds as they can utilize.
That, he said, could be a problem in a future pandemic, especially when it came to intensive care unit beds — an issue that was illustrated when COVID-19 numbers spiked in New York and New Jersey.
Some of the most ominous warnings had to do with health care, including the development and stockpile of vaccines and viral treatments.
“Of course, if developing a universal vaccine (for influenza types) were easy, it would have been done, but for decades few resources went to such research,” he wrote. Barry said the U.S. government doesn’t always spend its money wisely.
He said prior to the emergence of H5N1 — or bird flu — the U.S. government was spending more money on West Nile virus, which in its “deadliest year killed 284.” Influenza, on the other hand, was killing as many as 56,000 Americans.
That’s changed, but he said influenza deserves even more research money and effort than it receives today.
Dunn said public health is chronically underfunded in most places, in part because it’s easy to forget about how critical it is when there are no major issues.
And 2020 isn’t without its lessons.
Dunn said public health officials and politicians are learning that they have to work together to help people understand how to best care for each other when it comes to infectious disease.
“It reinforced the need to form good partnerships with the public before a pandemic hits,” she said. “When we are faced with a really big health threat, you already have that baseline of trust to build on. You’re not doing it in the middle of a crisis.”
Barry’s closing sentiments underscore why it is so critical that political leaders earn and keep public trust.
“As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create the terror — not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure,” he said.
“If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.... You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth.”
Lastly, Barry admonished ordinary people not to let their fear in a pandemic undermine their humanity.
“As Victor Vaughan — a careful man, a measured man, a man who did not overstate to make a point — warned, civilization could have disappeared within a few more weeks,” he wrote. “So the final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society.
“Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.”
Craig Bolerjack, center, calls the play-by-play at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City as the Utah Jazz play the Denver Nuggets in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. At left, former Jazz player Thurl Bailey gives analysis while at right Tyson Ewing helps track stats. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Unless maybe it’s talking about how close they used to cut it and still make their airline flights — a vanishing art form in the post 9-11 days — the war stories veteran sportscasters most love to talk about are the precarious places from which they’ve broadcast sporting events.
Craig Bolerjack, the longtime Jazz announcer, remembers his first gig doing play-by-play for high school football games in Kansas almost 40 years ago, perched in a 5-foot-wide crow’s nest atop a swaying 30-foot telephone pole; he remembers the 32 days he spent in Norway covering the Lillehammer Olympics back when he was the KSL sports anchor, doing his daily live reports in 18-below weather — at 3 in the morning; he remembers when the Rodney King riots didn’t let the Jazz go on the court, or him on the air, for five days as they all stayed sequestered in an L.A. hotel.
But he can’t remember anything quite as strange as what he’s doing in the summer of 2020.
For one thing, the NBA shouldn’t be playing basketball in August. For another, he shouldn’t be calling the action 2,200 miles from courtside.
“Crazy, bizarre, most unbelievable undertaking I’ve ever been involved in,” says a man renowned for never being at a loss for words.
Don’t get him wrong. He’s not complaining. He was there four months ago, on March 11 in Oklahoma City, when Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the coronavirus, shutting down that night’s game with the Thunder, the NBA season in general, and launching a domino effect that soon shut down most of the free world.
Like the rest of us, he wasn’t sure if the season would be able to resume at all.
But here we are, four months later, and the NBA has created an alternate universe in Orlando, Florida, recreating what Stephen King did in “Under the Dome,” only this isn’t fiction, this is reality, allowing the Jazz and 21 other playoff contenders to reside in a bubble and pick up more or less where they left off.
Although without any fans in the stands, or local play-by-play announcers sitting courtside.
This is how Bolerjack used to do play-by-play:
Arrive at the arena, park in his assigned space, enjoy a bite to eat in the press room, talk to media, scouts, analysts, do the pregame interview with Jazz coach Quin Snyder, watch the “house that Larry built” fill up with fans, soak up their energy, sit down next to his color analyst, put on his headset, call the game unfolding right there in front of him on the court.
This is how he does it now:
Arrive at the arena, park anywhere he wants in an empty lot, get his temperature taken at the door by a face scanner that makes sure it’s normal, make his way up to the third level, sit 20 feet away from his analyst, put on his headset, call the game from the Jumbotron as the Jazz play in an empty arena two time zones away.
Welcome to social distancing play-by-play.
The only other people in Vivint Arena are radio broadcasters David Locke and Ron Boone, Bolerjack’s analyst Thurl “Big T” Bailey (his other analyst, Matt Harpring, chimes in from his home in Atlanta), his stat guy, Tyson Ewing; sideline reporter Kristen Kenney and pre- and post-game host Alema Harrington — all in different corners of the building. Two producer-directors, Travis Henderson and Jeremy Brunner, are in a truck in the loading dock connecting with the Jazz’s vice president of broadcasting, Jeremy Castro, and the NBA people in Orlando, “making it all happen.”
“There’s eight to 10 people in a 19,000 seat arena, all spread out,” says Bolerjack. “It’s the most bizarre feeling. That building almost yells at me sometimes, ‘Please bring them back!’”
When the game is over, “I put my stuff away, pack up my microphone, pick up my bag and leave. I look around to say ‘thank-you,’ but there’s nobody to say thank-you to.”
Bolerjack does see a bright spot in the downside.
“The NBA has been very innovative through all this,” he says. “They have installed 50 some-odd microphones underneath the playing floor and they also have a remote controlled camera, the rail camera, that lets you kinda run alongside the players. It’s a beautiful invention. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these things are brought into the broadcasts from here on out because they’ve been so inventive.”
Still, after 39 years in the business of announcing sporting events, he can’t wait for a return to normalcy — to be able to describe the scene for his viewers as if he’s right on top of the action because he is right on top of the action.
There was one time, back in Kansas when he was starting out, that he covered a football game from a press box built on top of a little wooden concession stand.
“There was a huge hole in the roof and we could look right down into the snack shack,” remembers Bolerjack. “They’d shout up and ask, ‘Hey, do you want a Coke or a hot dog?’ During a break they’d hand it up to us. We got a Coke and a hot dog, but we always wondered if the roof was going to cave in.”
Motorists drive in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Sunday. According to KSL meteorologist Dan Guthrie, residents along the Wasatch Front can expect the weather to be sunny and dry for the week ahead. Fire danger will be on the rise in northern Utah with breezy conditions. Highs will continue to sit in the middle 90s through Thursday before climbing to near 100. Lows for the week will be in the upper 60s. Still no decent storm chances for the next seven to 10 days.
A total of 336 people have now died in Utah from the coronavirus and 44,127 have tested positive.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 411 per day. The rolling seven-day average for percent of positive laboratory tests is 9.1%, the health department stated.
There were 196 people hospitalized in Utah due to COVID-19 as of Sunday. A total of 2,620 have been hospitalized since the outbreak began, according to health officials. A total of 33,914 people are considered “recovered.”
A total of 570,613 people had been tested in Utah as of Sunday, an increase of 4,258 from Saturday.
Nationally, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. hit the 5 million mark on Sunday, by far the highest of any country, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Health officials believe the actual number is perhaps 10 times higher, or closer to 50 million, given testing limitations and the fact that as many as 40% of all those who are infected have no symptoms.
The U.S. is currently averaging 54,000 new cases a day, down from a peak of more than 70,000 last month, but cases are rising in nearly 20 states.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
Salt Lake County, 20,628; 1,344 hospitalized; 189 deaths.
The respiratory illness is especially hard on those who are elderly, immune-compromised or who have chronic health conditions. Children are not severely ill with COVID-19, as the resulting illness is called, unless they have an underlying condition, but they can transmit the illness.