During Gov. Mark Gordon’s press conference Wednesday, Facebook Live viewer Brandi Keller typed out the question others were asking themselves: “Is he really crying?”
Flanked by six cowboy hat-wearing representatives from the state’s largest rodeos, Gordon’s eyes were certainly a little watery as he announced that for the first time in its 124-year history, Cheyenne Frontier Days would not buck this summer.
Ditto the Thermopolis Cowboy Rendezvous PRCA Rodeo, Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo, Cody Stampede Rodeo, Sheridan WYO Rodeo and Laramie Jubilee Days.
“Nobody hates this more than me,” Gordon said, visibly tearing up. “This reality is not an easy one — I grew up around rodeo and rodeoed myself.”
Wyoming is the least-populated U.S. state and has had relatively few coronavirus cases. Its total of 14 deaths as of Wednesday ranks near the bottom of states overall and per capita.
Just before the press conference, the state announced the death of another resident at a Washakie County long-term care facility — the third death there in recent days.
The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks posed by the 100,000-plus-person crowd Cheyenne Frontier Days usually attracts forced the hands of the governor and rodeo organizers.
Their decision, Gordon said, was made together: “The state did not force these cancellations.”
Frontier Days President and CEO Tom Hirsig did not dispute that: “There is no doubt the governor loves the sport of rodeo and considers it our state sport.”
The cancellation is particularly tough for an event that has carried on through both world wars and the Great Depression, when lean finances prompted it to become a mostly volunteer-run event, which it still is.
It’s also a big draw for top athletes and an economic boon for the state capital over the last two weeks in July. A Frontier Days belt buckle is among rodeo’s most coveted prizes, and the event pumps up to $28 million into the Laramie County economy, the Associated Press reported. Some shops more or less get by for the year on their Frontier Days business.
Smaller gatherings such as the Jackson Hole Rodeo may be able to take place.
Gordon also announced new health orders Wednesday that will allow outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people, including rodeos, so long as certain physical distancing and health requirements are met.
The change is a 10-fold increase from the 25-person limit, which remains in place for indoor gatherings. Churches and funeral homes are exempt.
Asked why a rodeo with 250 people would be allowed, but a larger one would not, State Health Officer Alexia Harrist said, “There’s clearly a lot of demand for people to be able to go outside and enjoy these types of events, which are really important for Wyoming.
“Where there is enough room for 250 people to space out outdoors and enjoy that gathering,” she added, “that seems very reasonable to protect public health.”
Wyoming’s new gathering order is one of the most lenient in the Mountain West. Montana, which has had fewer cases of COVID-19, will allow gatherings of up to 50 people starting June 1.
Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said he is weighing whether to request a variance for Teton County.
Harrist said the challenge of maintaining appropriate social distancing wasn’t the only factor that went into the decision to cancel the state’s marquee rodeos. Earlier, Gordon and Hirsig suggested the modifications that would have been required to make events workable would have ruined their character.
“Going off half-cocked in the collective mind of everyone up here just wouldn’t be worth it,” Gordon said. “This coronavirus thing sucks.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.