Rodeo defies COVID odds: No new outbreaks despite record crowds

The American Flag is presented to open the first night of the Payette County Rodeo Aug. 7, which was held on the final two days of this year’s Payette County Fair. Both grandstands at the fairgrounds at the facility were packed with attendees, just two days after Southwest District Health announced that all of Payette County was moved from an orange health alert level to the red, which indicates that the county is at “the tipping point for uncontrollable spread” of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

NEW PLYMOUTH

Despite “record attendance” during each night of this year’s Payette County Rodeo, so far no clusters of new positive COVID-19 cases have been tied to that or its counterpart event: the fair. The Payette County Fair ran Aug. 5-8 with the rodeo running the final three days.

“The epidemiologists have not yet encountered any clusters stemming from the fair or rodeo in Payette County,” reads an email on Aug. 20 from Katrina Williams, spokeswoman for Southwest District Health.

While there is not a specific question about the fair or rodeo asked by contact tracers, she said that conversations would “naturally evolve to identify the source of exposure.”

Epidemiologists for the regional health authority have been keeping some of the larger events on their radar, according to Williams, who along with epidemiologists remain hopeful that there will be no spike in cases.

Before it began, SWDH officials had worked with fair and rodeo officials this year on putting up signs regarding public health recommendations during COVID-19. This included suggestions to stay 6 feet apart when co-mingling with people not from your household, and to wear a mask when unable to do so. The health authority also stated when defining its health alert levels that events that draw large crowds, including rodeos, should consider limiting the density to 1 person per 64 square feet of space.

Photos taken by the newspaper at the rodeo clearly show that those precautions were not being taken into consideration by rodeo attendees: Several photos of at least a hundred or more people show them sitting tighter together than 6 feet or 64 square feet with no masks being worn.

The rodeo grandstand was jam packed this year. Ryan Hill, member of the rodeo board, said that Saturday was the busiest night by far, with 2,300 people in attendance.

“We had record attendance this year,” he said.

That included the pre-rodeo on Thursday, which always includes events for youth, such as mutton bustin’, steer riding and junior barrels. These events drew in 400 more people than last year. Friday and Saturday’s main events attracted about 600 more people per day than last year.

“I don’t think we’ll see numbers like this in quite a few years,” Hill said, adding that Saturday’s main event typically draws between 1,700 and 1,800.

In addition to the usual local pool of rodeo-goers, he said there were people from Ada and Canyon counties and, even, some from as far away as Crane, Oregon this year.

“They were looking for something to do,” Hill said, referencing how many annual events, including nearby fair and rodeos had been canceled due to the pandemic. “I don’t think we’ll see numbers like this in quite a few years.”

The rodeo recoups its costs for purses and other expenses through ticket sales. Purses alone rack up a $15,000 cost at $3,000 per event.

“That’s the only way we keep going every year,” he explained.

The extra tickets sold will help offset added expenses this year, Hill said, which included putting out a bunch of hand-sanitizer stations and hiring extra people for security reasons, “because we knew it would be bigger.”

“It was awesome,” Hill said.

And he was pleased to hear no COVID outbreaks were tied to the big event.

“That’s what I really like to hear,” Hill said. “We have been all as a board watching the CDC and the numbers, and hoping and praying.”

He expressed his gratitude for supporters.

“I just want to thank everybody for coming out,” Hill said.

Cathy Meyers, secretary for the Payette County Fair, said that while they do not keep track of attendance because the fair is free to attend, the turnout was good. She said the evenings were very busy overall, including for the food booths, and that the market sale went “really, really good” for participants.

It is noteworthy that the fair and rodeo went on while Payette County was in a “red” health alert level due to a moderately high incidence rate and sustained community spread.

On Aug. 13, Williams said only 60% of confirmed cases knew where they were exposed to COVID-19.

“SWDH epidemiologists are concerned by cluster outbreaks in local workplace settings, as well as the large proportion of citizens who commute to areas with heightened community spread,” Williams wrote.

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