Will virus keep Florida spectators from astronaut launch?

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AP2011

FILE - In this Friday, July 8, 2011 file photo, crowds gather in the surf and on the beach in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on STS-135. This is the final U.S. shuttle mission before the fleet is retired. In ordinary times, the beaches and roads along Floridas Space Coast would be packed with hundreds of thousands of spectators, eager to witness the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years, scheduled for May 27, 2020. In the age of coronavirus, local officials and NASA are split on whether that's a good idea. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

ORLANDO, Fla. – 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.

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.

The sheriff, who grew up in Florida watching launches, wants a new generation to be able to experience the energy, excitement and feelings of patriotism that comes from watching a U.S. launch with astronauts.