Mass ascension launches balloon event after COVID-19 hiatus

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Hundreds of hot-air balloons created a colorful tapestry against a blue sky Saturday in New Mexico’s largest city, kicking off a nine-day annual event that was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

The 7 a.m. mass ascension was the first of five scheduled for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which draws visitors from around the world.

The 2020 fiesta was canceled as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

Organizers said over 540 balloons were registered for this year’s event. The 2019 fiesta drew nearly 600 balloons from across the U.S. and 17 other countries.

Fiesta organizers said they won’t be checking for vaccination cards but noted precautions are being taken to preserve social distancing and provide access to hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations. Indoor dining for balloon pilots and VIPs has been canceled.

More than 80 balloons that come in special ornate or cartoonish shapes will be disbursed throughout the launch field, rather than clustered together — encouraging crowds to spread out, fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said.

Scheduled events include a chain saw carving display, fireworks, sky divers, musical stage performances and a strolling mariachi band.

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