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NCAA Men's Basketball Teams Are About To Converge On Indianapolis

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The brackets for March Madness are set - well for the men's side, at least. Now, the matchups for the women's tournament will be announced later today. But for the first time in NCAA history, all of the men's games are scheduled to take place in and around one city - Indianapolis, come on down. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Samantha Horton reports on preparations.

SAMANTHA HORTON, BYLINE: The Indianapolis Marriott downtown is 1 of the 4 hotels restricted only to teams. Today, employees here are walking around the lobby wearing red paper wristbands to show they've been cleared to work for the day. General manager Michael Moros clearly remembers this scene one year ago, when the Big Ten men's basketball conference was halted in its tracks.

MICHAEL MOROS: One of our Big Ten teams had just left to head to the stadium, and an hour later, they returned; the tournament had been called off. And that was absolutely reality to us.

HORTON: A few days later, his hotel was completely empty of guests and temporarily closed soon after. Moros says the tournament will be the first time since the start of the pandemic that his hotel will be open for an entire week.

MOROS: We placed almost all of our associates on furlough. And lo and behold, here we are a year later, and I still have 300-plus employees that have not returned. So it's been difficult, but we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

HORTON: The Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association reports more than 95% of hotel workers were laid off in less than 48 hours. More than 200,000 Hoosier restaurant workers also lost their jobs over just a few days.

This year, each basketball venue will allow spectators at or around 25% capacity. For Lucas Oil Stadium, the largest venue being used, that could mean as many as about 18,000 people watching one game. University of California, Berkeley, epidemiologist John Swartzberg, says while he doesn't have overwhelming concerns for athletes and staff, he does worry about thousands of fans across the country traveling here to watch days of basketball.

JOHN SWARTZBERG: So then you take Indianapolis for the finals and you're bringing people in from all over the country who are going to be dining out, who are going to be going to bars and they're going to be going to indoor games - I hope nothing bad happens from this.

HORTON: Michael Boothe works downtown at a restaurant across from 1 of the 6 venues. Booth says his job as host is to help enforce COVID-19 protocols with customers.

MICHAEL BOOTHE: I'm actually the one making sure people are sitting, like, 6 feet apart, making sure we have space for everyone, making sure there's no parties over six people.

HORTON: Boothe is looking forward to earning a paycheck over the next few weeks. He's 18, living in a dorm room by himself and getting COVID tested twice a week. So while he feels relatively safe, he understands why others might not.

BOOTHE: Obviously, there's other people at my work and around the city who are, like, more at risk, people who could actually get sick and possibly even have serious complications from COVID-19.

HORTON: March Madness games tip off Thursday, with a championship game set to be held here April 5.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Horton in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "STRANGE TIMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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