Bright lights illuminated a dense crowd of people walking over a freshly packed dirt track at Nationwide Arena late Saturday morning.
Children dashed around the arena floor, and families posed for photos in front of decorated monster trucks ahead of the main Monster Jam show that afternoon.
Jason and Denise Good were among the parents guiding their children — 3-year-old Joshua and 7-year-old James — through the attractions at the Monster Jam Pit Party.
The family drove from Dayton to attend the show, which was the first big event they’ve attended since the pandemic began, Denise Good, 38, said.
“For the kids’ point of view, it’s huge to be out and to learn to socialize, how to act in a social setting, how to act around other kids,” Jason Good, 46, said. “We’re social creatures, so it’s important to learn those social cues, and you can only do so much at home in your little family circle.”
But the Good family isn’t the only one marking a first. Monster Jam, which continues Sunday, was Nationwide Arena’s first nonathletic entertainment event in more than 500 days since the March 8 Dan + Shay tour stop last year.
Gary O’Brien, Columbus Arena Sports and Entertainment director of communications, said the show signifies a return to normal for the arena and the city after a year of working from home and social distancing.
“It’s very strange to be resuming, and the few times that I’ve been in, it’s been very quiet in here except for the people that do keep the building going,” he said. “And it’s kind of exciting though that the Nationwide Arena that we once knew is back.”
Victoria Villaraza, 36, came all the way from West Virginia with her family for Monster Jam, which she had seen earlier this year in Charleston. She met with relatives from central Ohio and she said she was surprised that Nationwide hadn’t hosted entertainment events in more than a year because of how quickly she said her home state had loosened pandemic restrictions.
“I’m actually shocked that Nationwide is having it’s first event. I didn’t know that,” she said. “I was excited (for the event) because my son is autistic, and he loves Monster Jam.”
From concerts to rodeos to sporting events, Nationwide has 10 events scheduled through the end of the year, in addition to Blue Jackets hockey games. And more than 20 unannounced shows are penciled in for the near and distant future, O’Brien said.
“We’re coming back; the industry is coming back, and everyone – fans, us, everyone, the industry performers – we’re already excited,” he said.
In line with pre-pandemic events, the arena will operate at full capacity but increase sanitation and continue to follow local and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, recommending but not requiring that guests wear masks.
What’s new, O’Brien said, are its touchless upgrades, including soap dispensers and mobile tickets, and cashless payment options for concessions, parking and merchandise. Visitors can make purchases only by card, he said, but the arena will offer reverse ATMs for those with cash, so they can fill a debit card for purchases.
For Lachelle Duncan, bringing her grandchildren, Kobe Campbell, 6, and Aiden Romero, 3, to the Pit Party was especially important to her after more than a year of pandemic restrictions and recently losing her 106-year-old grandmother.
The 54-year-old from Galloway said that, in the face of rising concerns about the delta variant, she isn’t worried and will continue to go out to events.
“(Going to events is) so important because they’ve grown up, and (this is) the bonding that we need to do, instead of having a separation of families and stuff,” she said.
Amid rising COVID-19 cases, though, this Monster Jam most likely will be the Good family’s first and last public event until they feel it’s safer, Denise Good said. But, she said, getting out of the house just once after spending the winter “bouncing off the walls” was valuable, too.
“At this point, I think life will probably just be a little different and will take more compassion, but I think it’s important to create that normalcy again,” she said.