With July 4th celebrations canceled around the country, one distinctly American tradition continued Saturday despite the pandemic: the annual pilgrimage of competitive eaters to Coney Island for the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. But with cheering crowds turned away to promote social distancing, contestants instead chowed down to the sound of competitors' gulping and chewing.

The location of this year's hot dog slog, which has been held every summer since 1916 except 1941, when it was canceled because of the war in Europe, was not disclosed ahead of the event to discourage loyal fans from flocking to it.

The event ordinarily draws thousands to the original Nathan's location in Brooklyn. Spectators sweat beneath foam hot dog hats, cheering as they watch a panel of competitors dunk the sausages into water — to soften the buns.

"The Nathan's Famous contest is synonymous with July 4th, America and the celebration of freedom," said the event's host, George Shea, who is known for his extravagantly patriotic commentary.

Lacking the audience this year to cheer raucously, the competitive eaters, who usually hover over their piles of hot dogs shoulder to shoulder, were spaced apart from one another. The contest was limited to five women and six men to allow for adequate social distancing. One woman was unable to attend because of restrictions on travel to New York from Arizona, where coronavirus cases are surging.

Joey Chestnut of San Jose, Calif., who won his 13th title Saturday after eating a record 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, said in an interview Friday that it would be challenging not to be surrounded by the deafening cheers from the crowd this year — and for the first time to be able to hear his competitors while they chow down.

For Chestnut, 36, the confirmation that the contest would still go on "made it a lot easier to practice." Eating 40 or 50 hot dogs at a time without the certainty that the competition would happen this year was a bit "depressing," he said.

The reigning women's champion, Miki Sudo of Torrington, Conn., defended her title this year, winning for the seventh time by scarfing down a record 48½ hot dogs.

"This is a competition unlike anything that we've had before," she said — an understatement.

New York Times