Iditarod drops ceremonial start over crowd-size concerns

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) There has been another dramatic change to the world’s most famous sled dog race this year because of the pandemic, with officials announcing Friday that the ceremonial start has been canceled.

“After consulting with our stakeholders and in consultation with the Municipality of Anchorage, we decided to cancel our traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage due to the COVID-19 concerns of a large gathering,” Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race CEO Rob Urbach said in a statement.

The Saturday event normally draws large crowds to downtown Anchorage to watch as mushers carrying Iditariders, or people who won auctions to ride in the sleds, take a leisurely jaunt through Alaska’s largest city. It’s a party atmosphere with beer tents and food stands lining downtown streets.

For the actual start of the race, which is always held the following day, the Iditarod has said there will be limited space for spectators outside a secure area, and encouraged fans to watch the start and finish on live television.

“We take the health and well-being of our racers, volunteers, staff, and spectators very seriously,” he said.

The Iditarod had earlier announced that the route was being changed this year to start and end near Willow, about 50 miles (80.47 kilometers) north of Anchorage.

With mushers not traveling across Alaska to the traditional finish line just off the Bering Sea coast in Nome, that has knocked the normal 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) race down 860 miles (1,384 kilometers).

This year’s Iditarod will be the final race for ExxonMobil, a major race sponsor since 1978, after the oil giant received pressure from one of its shareholders and the race’s biggest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Fifty mushers will begin the race March 7, the smallest field in the last two decades.