This weekend’s WrestleMania 36 will be different in a way no one could have imagined last year: professional wrestling’s largest and most iconic event will not have a single fan in attendance.
“For us, first and foremost as this was all happening, was the health and safety of not only our performers but also our staff and our crew to make sure that they were all as healthy as possible and that we weren’t risking them,” Paul “Triple H” Levesque tells PEOPLE.
The change, of course, comes as the world copes with the outbreak of coronavirus, which has forced the closures of businesses, schools and stores everywhere and has led to “social distancing” becoming part of the everyday vernacular.
When faced with the decision to postpone or even cancel this year’s WrestleMania 36, WWE had “careful and very thoughtful” discussions about their options, says Paul Levesque, the company’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development. It was during these conversations that WWE decided moving forward with the show was possibly more important than ever.
“There’s probably no greater time — at least in my memory, in my generation — where people need entertainment,” Levesque, better known by his ring name, “Triple H,” tells PEOPLE. “They need that relief. They need a distraction and something to be entertained by.”
That’s why on April 4 and 5, WWE’s WrestleMania 36 is likely to be one of the biggest draws on television — even if it will be completely different from any of its previous iterations.
“We decided that giving people entertainment at this time, giving people an escape, giving them something that would give them some normalcy, was worth the challenge for us,” the 50-year-old wrestling icon says. “And now it’s taking place on Saturday and Sunday to give people even more of an opportunity to forget about everything and escape, if that’s what they choose to do.”
Levesque admits, “It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be the spectacle that it was. But it’s going to be totally unique and totally different.”
Aside from the absence of fans and the change from a one-night event to two, WrestleMania 36 will take place somewhere no other WWE event of this scale has been held — at the company’s Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, which is typically used as a training facility for future prospects.
This is quite the change in size from WrestleMania’s original location, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, which can hold more than 65,000 fans.
But while the NBA, NHL and MLB swiftly announced decisions in March to indefinitely suspend their activities amid coronavirus, WWE has been criticized for moving forward with events that make it impossible for their performers to abide by social distancing recommendations.
To that, Levesque says the company has taken precautions to minimize risks and protect its performers and staff. Additionally, in a previous statement to Sports Illustrated, WWE says everyone involved in WrestleMania 36 has been required to “participate in medical screenings” before the event.
They are also testing for heightened body temperatures and implementing “pandemic-level cleaning” inside the training center.
Outside of superstars including The Undertaker, John Cena, Edge and Becky Lynch, only essential personnel will be on the set for the event, which has largely been pre-taped.
“For us, first and foremost as this was all happening, was the health and safety of not only our performers but also our staff and our crew to make sure that they were all as healthy as possible and that we weren’t risking them,” Levesque says. “But after that, we wanted to try as hard as we possibly could, without taking too much risk, to try to continue to entertain people.”
One major superstar has pulled out from the event — 34-year-old Roman Reigns, who is immunocompromised after battles with leukemia over the last decade. He has not publicly specified why he decided not to participate.
So far, there have been no reported cases of any of WWE’s performers testing positive for coronavirus.
In addition to the uniqueness — and strangeness — of watching WrestleMania without a live audience, the event will be hosted by former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, known for his outgoing and rambunctious personality.
“I think we’re just kind of all living in Gronk’s world,” Levesque tells PEOPLE while laughing. “And he’s the plan. I think he will bring the hype and he will get people excited because it’s just who he is as a person.”
When asked how he thinks history will remember this weekend, Levesque — a 30-year veteran of the professional wrestling business — says he hopes people will recall how WWE did what it could to momentarily ease fans’ fears during an unprecedented and uncertain time.
“Some people will obviously criticize, some people will love it, but I think that as time goes on — when you look back at this 20 years from now — it’s hard for me not to see it and say, ‘Look, when the whole world was shut down, when everyone was boxed up at home, the WWE still was out there trying to entertain us,’ ” Levesque says.
“At the end of the day, there’s also something to be said about trying to move forward and give people some normalcy,” he adds. “And I think over time, especially for us because there’s the entertainment factor, I think people will look back in hindsight favorably upon that.”