Will coronavirus keep Florida spectators from astronaut launch?

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In ordinary times, the beaches and roads along Florida’s Space Coast would be packed with hundreds of thousands of spectators, eager to witness the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years.

In the age of coronavirus, local officials and NASA are split on whether that’s a good idea.

NASA and SpaceX are urging spectators to stay at home next Wednesday for safety reasons. Officials in Brevard County, home to the Kennedy Space Center, are rolling out the welcome mat in an effort to jump-start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus-related lockdowns.

If people are comfortable coming and watching the launch, “by all means, come. If they aren’t, I respect that too,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.

“I’m not going to tell Americans they can’t watch a great piece of history. I’m just not going to do it,” he said.

The sheriff said he is asking visitors to practice social distancing as they watch the launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule. Liftoff is set for 4:33 p.m. EDT.

Around 85 reserve deputies will be on hand to monitor crowds and ask people to comply with social distancing if they are in groups. A local chain of beach shops is distributing 20,000 masks to spectators in coordination with the sheriff’s office, Ivey said.

Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine asked potential spectators to watch the launch online or on TV from home. The space agency is also offering a “virtual launch experience.”

NASA is doing its best to facilitate social distancing inside the Kennedy Space Center by limiting access, although it may be hosting two VIPS. Vice President Mike Pence says he plans to be there, and President Donald Trump said he’s thinking of attending.

The visitor center at Kennedy, usually a prime spot for viewing launches, is closed to the public.

NASA astronauts have not launched from the U.S. since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. It will be the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts to orbit for the space agency.

Although crowd sizes varied, a high-profile space shuttle launch could attract a half million visitors to the Space Coast. Local tourism officials think next week’s launch will bring in no more than 200,000 spectators.

The Space Coast’s tourism business is down by about 40% for the year, and that could cost the area $1 billion, he said.

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