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Of the community, for the community: UD Arena more than just a place for basketball during pandemic

University of Dayton Arena was scheduled to be ready for March Madness on March 15, 2020. But COVID-19 changed that. By that evening, a flurry of text messages to UD Arena Executive Director Scott DeBolt set into motion a transformation of UD Arena unlike any in its history. By March 17, 2020, the day the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament should have tipped in Dayton, the arena became southwest Ohio's first mass public COVID-19 testing site.

In a conversation with DeBolt, he looked back on the two-plus years of how the arena helped the region navigate the pandemic. 

For 120 days between mid-March and early September, Premier Health, CompuNet Clinical Laboratories, Fidelity Health Care and UD Arena welcomed people from around the Midwest for COVID-19 and flu testing — about 100,000 tests in all. Arena staff worked 12-hour days.

"When we were in that first meeting, we were thinking we would just do this for a couple weeks. We didn't think we'd do this all summer," said DeBolt, who has been in his role since 2013. "But the way staff at Premier Health, CompuNet Clinical Laboratories, Fidelity Health Care and faculty, staff and students from many corners of the University, not just the arena, pitched in truly enabled the operation's success."

When vaccinations became available for teens and adults, the arena changed from testing site to vaccination site. On 40 days in the first half of 2021, Premier Health performed about 60,000 vaccinations. When children aged 6 to 11 became eligible for vaccinations, DeBolt said crews "turned our facility into Dayton Children’s Hospital at UD Arena," bringing in signage, setting up sensory rooms and playing Disney on TVs for vaccination clinics for a total of 3,000 children. "There were lots of appreciative, teary-eyed parents," DeBolt added.

"During an unprecedented public health emergency like this one, everyone pitched in to make this community service a reality as quickly as possible," said Nick Lair, system vice president of laboratory services for Premier Health, who had an office in the arena’s Boesch Lounge during the pandemic. "We recognized that we couldn’t wait for someone else to set up a testing site in the community. We had to act, and the UD Arena staff plus many others at the University saved the day. It was a perfect location for mass testing and vaccinations."

In between, there were twists and turns and shifting of gears regarding layouts, how to route people through the clinics, staffing and weather, DeBolt said. For example, Premier Health's vaccination clinics started outside until weather forced them inside. 

"After a day and a half, the cold was too much for staff and their computers," DeBolt said. "But by moving inside, we also were able to handle many more people."

In addition to the pandemic and the clinics, arena staff still had their day jobs. This included getting the arena operational for the 2020-21 UD men's and women's basketball seasons under the constraints of COVID-19 protocols — attendance limited to 300 fans in the 13,000-seat facility, a shift to being a cashless facility and digital ticketing. The First Four, along with the rest of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, moved to Indianapolis. But the arena still had the boys and girls Ohio High School Athletic Association state basketball championships. Once basketball season wrapped, arena staff had to cope with not the usual three UD commencement ceremonies, but six to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions.

"For the first few months, COVID-19 activities replaced the events we lost in the arena, which freed some time," DeBolt said. "But we had new challenges to managing staff, managing our athletics facilities other than the arena, performing normal summer maintenance and getting ready for our fall 2021 sports. Once our fall and winter sports started ramping up again in 2021, we had to manage ever-changing COVID-19 protocols and concerns, plus the shift to digital ticketing and going cashless. At times it was harder managing 300 people in the stands rather than 13,000."

The secret sauce to pulling all of this off is the arena's prioritization of partnerships and the philosophy that the arena is a community asset -- not just a place for basketball.

"We don't just rent our building, we enter into partnerships to make their event the best it can be," DeBolt said. "All of our partnerships make the best use of this facility. We don’t often do one-off events, because we’d rather partner with an organization to provide the best service and build off the relationship for future events."

Arena partners will find a staff willing to customize spaces for the best use for the partners and the type of event. All staff are cross-trained and can pitch in to do any job.

"It’s not like in other places where marketing and operations don’t talk until there’s a conflict between the contract and what the facility can provide," DeBolt said. "We have a great arena crew and a cool community within a great UD community. We work together from start to finish."

Although there's still a pandemic, and arena staff will always put the safety of visitors first, DeBolt said it was late summer and early fall of 2021 when he felt things were returning to “normal.”

"The Basketball Tournament was the first one we felt was 'normal,'" DeBolt said about the August $1 million winner-take-all tournament on ESPN featuring many past college basketball players. "Then Fan Fest in October and the exhibition games to kick off the UD men's and women's basketball seasons in November. But we still had more no-shows than normal because of concerns. It wasn't until February and March 2022 that we were really back to nearly full capacity with UD games, the high school tournament games, the NCAA First Four and the Winter Guard International competitions."

As UD Arena looks toward the 2022-23 season — hopefully all at full strength — DeBolt said the arena will continue to be fully cashless and all tickets will be digital. "Although we pride ourselves on having a clean building, we'll keep a 'pandemic-level' of cleanliness," DeBolt added along with increased checks of water and air quality.

While he can't put a bow on the pandemic and he and his staff always have the building ready for what could be next, DeBolt has taken a moment to reflect on UD Arena's part in this segment of Dayton's history.

"I think about my 30-plus years in this industry, and some of the cool things I've been a part of. The pandemic was not 'cool,' but it was 'cool' for what we accomplished, plus giving back to the community. It was challenging but really rewarding," DeBolt said. "UD Arena was built in 1969 to be an asset for the community. We will always continue to be that resource and open our arms for people to use our building." 

By the Numbers: UD Arena during the pandemic

48: Hours from being asked to stand up a COVID-19 testing site to implementation 

120: Days of COVID-19/flu/COVID-19 antibody testing
100,000: Number of COVID-19/flu/COVID-19 antibody tests performed 

40: Days of vaccination clinics
60,000: Vaccinations given

For interviews, please contact Shawn Robinson, associate director of news and communications, at


News and Communications Staff