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Mar 27, 2020, 2:00 PM

'Hour by hour'

The head-spinning pace with which reaction to COVID-19 evolved made for a wild ride in Las Vegas.

By Keith Paradise

Karim Belhaj, Chief Executive Officer of Predator Group, sat on the stage that overlooks the Predator World-10 Ball Championship arena on the afternoon of Monday, March 16 — the day opening-round competition was scheduled to begin. As the event title sponsor, this was supposed to be a happy week for him and his company, with announcements of new products and tournaments worldwide. Instead, bleachers remained but the equipment was packed up and awaiting departure from Las Vegas — and so was Belhaj and many of the event's competitors.

"Hour by hour, throughout the day of Sunday, everything changed," he said. As the COVID-19 virus rapidly spread across the United States last month, the only thing that may have moved more swiftly than the pandemic itself was the response of emergency management authorities. What initially appeared as a slowly moving issue shifted sharply into a national crisis, with professional sports leagues, school districts and businesses shuttering. Caught in the middle of it all was CueSports International's Expo and Chief Executive Officer Ozzy Reynolds, who spent nearly two weeks on site monitoring the situation with hotel and local officials. Although organizers initially felt the 11-day event could be completed in a safe environment, the mounting concerns and directives made it an impossibility.

CSI's staff arrived the Rio Hotel and Casino on March 5 to begin setting up for the organization's annual Expo, which draws 6,000-7,000 attendees and involves exhibitors and participants in the World 10-Ball, the Diamond Las Vegas Open and the BCA and USA Pool League World and National Championships. As staff members set up piping, tables, lighting and banners, Reynolds and his staff were meeting with representatives from Ceasars Entertainment and Clark County. Although COVID-19 was discussed, officials didn't see the virus as a concern.

"At the time, it was literally just a handful of cases," said Reynolds. "It didn't seem like anything that would affect this event whatsoever."

Professional and amateur players began arriving a couple of days later and BCA 8-Ball and 9-Ball singles and USAPL 9-Ball team events commenced on March 10. That night, President Donald Trump addressed the nation and announced a European travel ban that excluded the United Kingdom. Although it raised some eyebrows, Reynolds remained in contact with casino and local officials who still didn't believe the quickly spreading virus would threaten the event.

Photo credit JP Parmentier.

The following day, however, the snowball started rolling downhill, as the National Basketball Association postponed its season. The National Hockey League and National Collegiate Athletic Association's basketball tournaments soon followed. As rumors began to swirl about the event's future, CSI issued a release stating there were not any plans to cancel and that the hotel and organization were taking steps to maintain a sanitary environment — including frequently wiping down tables with antibacterial cloths and installing hand sanitizing stations throughout the facility.

Meanwhile, European players, who made up roughly 20 percent of the World 10-Ball field, grew restless about their chances of returning home. After President Trump announced the first European travel ban, some competitors kicked around the idea of staying in the United States for a month in order to compete in the U.S. Open Pool Championship, slated to begin April 13. However, when the President added the U.K. to the ban while declaring a state of emergency three days later, the Open was thrown into a state of uncertainty.

Everything, all of the player consternation and increased emergency measures, reached a crescendo the Sunday before the World 10-Ball Championship was scheduled to begin. Rumors swirled of casinos closing and air travel being halted domestically and abroad, all while the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continued to increase.

"Things keep changing every 30 minutes to the hour, and not for the good, to be honest," said Ralf Souquet in the arena that afternoon.

Thorsten Hohmann didn't wait for a decision, withdrawing from the event before the player's meeting and leaving town. With the amateur league teams scheduled to arrive over the next couple of days, Hohmann had concerns about potential coronavirus carriers as well as the travel restriction speculation.

"I don't want to get caught for five or six days here where things are just getting worse and worse," Hohmann said. "I just want to be out and not be a part of spreading the virus."

As rumors spread that the U.S. Open would be postponed, some European players leaned towards returning home and Souquet arranged a meeting with tournament officials to voice concerns.

"Two hours ago, I wanted to play in the event, but now it looks like I have to fly home or else I won't be able to get back to Germany," said Souquet.

The meeting would become irrelevant. Around 5:30 p.m., the Center for Disease Control prohibited gatherings of 50-or-more people. An hour later, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak banned gatherings in which 50-percent or more of a room's fire marshal allowed capacity is used.

"If the CDC had put out guidelines on day one like they did yesterday, we would have stopped at that point," Reynolds said the day after the cancelation. "We were going to continue with the event until there was a compelling reason not to."

CSI announced around 7 p.m. local time that the tournament was canceled, then issued a release a couple of hours later that the individual competition portion of the BCA Pool League championship would continue and conclude on Tuesday, but the team event would not be played. Additionally, the USA Pool League canceled its 8-ball and 10-ball singles events as well as its 10-ball team competition. Reynolds was left with the unenviable task of going from booth to booth and speaking to vendors, letting them know the event was being closed and that they would be receiving a prorated refund. He expected negative reactions, but received the opposite.

"Instead of being angry that they were going to miss out on revenue, they were really concerned about what it is going to do to us," Reynolds said.

About those refunds, Reynolds said entry fees for players who didn't compete in the tournament would be processed after the event was completed. Although he didn't wish to discuss the details of how much revenue the Expo and tournaments generate for CSI, Reynolds did say the cancellation would be "an extremely big hit" to the organization. Despite the financial consequences of the cancellation, Reynolds agreed with the measures being taken not just in Las Vegas, but worldwide.

"If these drastic measures help us get control of this before it's a worse problem, I think this is a very good thing," he said. "That is way more important than a pool tournament."

Shortly after the cancellation announcement, Russia's Fedor Gorst waited at the registration desk for a check. Like many fellow competitors, he didn't initially believe the pandemic was serious when he arrived but continued to receive text message updates from home about increasing cases.

"I want to get home as soon as I can," said Gorst. "Honestly, I'm a little bit scared already because nobody knows anything about this virus."

He was struggling to contact Russian airline Aeroflot to change his itinerary. After competing in Italy's Treviso Open last month then heading to the U.S., Grost was certain he would be quarantined upon arrival back home.

"Going to Italy in addition to the U.S., that's the jackpot," he said, dryly. A few hours after the cancellation was announced, a handful of the players as well as tournament staff huddled at the circular bar at the Rio. Some were having preflight drinks before early departures, while many were saying goodbyes, with professional tournaments most likely on hiatus for a few months.

The most popular drink in everyone's hands? What else: Corona.

Matchroom Postpones Events

With a pair of professional events, including the Predator World 10-Ball Championship, running in Las Vegas, and the Matchroom-produced U.S. Open Pool Championship a month off, Matchroom Multi Sport COO Emily Frazer thought it a good time to pop over to Las Vegas from London. She had planning meetings arranged with Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, site of the U.S. Open. The trip would also give her ample opportunity to observe the World 10-Ball Championship at the Rio Hotel and Casino, and catch up with the players.

"It was going to be a simple four-day business trip," Frazer said upon her return to London following the abrupt cancellation of the World 10-Ball Championship and travel bans that seemed to get more stringent by the hour in the wake of news that the COVID-19 virus had reached pandemic status. "It was mad."

By the end of those four days, Frazer, who had already announced the postponement of the World Pool Masters, slated for late March in Gibraltar, announced that the U.S. Open Pool Championship would also be postponed.

"When I arrived on Friday [March 13], all systems were still go," Frazer said. "The hotel was comfortable that the event would be fine. Extra precautions would be in place. They felt they were prepared."

While President Trump had announced a travel ban to and from continental Europe, Frazer was convinced that the 256-player field would remain full. "Many of the top European players were already here," she rationalized. "We realized that some players still in Europe wouldn't be able to get to the event, but we had a huge waiting list of U.S. players that could have filled in."

The very next day, however, President Trump widened the travel ban to include the United Kingdom.

"That was a game-changer because the bulk of our staff and TV crew are based in the U.K.," Frazer said. "Hour by hour, things got worse. It was obvious that postponement of the U.S. Open was inevitable.

"I've never witnessed something escalate like that in such a short period of time," she added.

"It was scary."

As word spread through the Rio and across social media, Frazer said the response somewhat surprised her.

"The best part is that everyone is aware of what's happening and is understanding of the predicament we're all in," she said. "It's been a very supportive environment."

As for new dates for both the World Pool Masters and U.S. Open Pool Championship, Frazer said no decisions would be made until the COVID-19 crisis was under control.

"We want events to happen," she said. "But safety first. We are taking each day as it comes, and we won't make any rash decisions."

And the potential of numerous major tournaments crammed into the final five months of the year is not lost on Frazer.

"There will be a lot of clashes in dates," she warned. "That's inevitable."