This isn’t the first pandemic Cattlemen’s Days organizers in Gunnison have faced. And they’re determined not to let this one bring a halt to the annual celebration of cowboys and the western way of life, either.
Cattlemen’s Days started in 1900 when ranchers and ranch hands took a short break after calving and before haying season to test their riding and roping skills in contests that over time morphed into modern rodeo. The local event has been held every year since — through the 1918 Spanish Flu, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression and more, making it the longest continually held rodeo in the country, according to organizers.
Those organizers, led by Cattlemen’s Days Association President Kevin Coblentz, are committed to not letting that streak come to an end. They announced last weekend that a revised rodeo — possibly without spectators — will be held over Labor Day weekend (Sept. 3-5).
There’s a catch, however. In addition to the business sponsorships that are typically sought, this year organizers are looking to the community to raise $150,000 in cash to support the event. And they need to do so by Aug. 10.
“This will be a win for the community and the cowboys,” Coblentz said. “We’re not just putting on a rodeo.”
Many major rodeos across the country have been canceled this summer due to COVID-19 — including Pikes Peak or Bust and the Greeley Stampede in Colorado, and Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming. The cowboys and cowgirls who hit the circuit trying to eek out a living and qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, set every December in Las Vegas, have largely been casualties of this eventless year.
Coblentz said Cattlemen’s Days would be the biggest rodeo in the country happening this Labor Day weekend, and that he’d expect an “all star lineup” of contestants as a result.
The Cattlemen’s Days committee and county public health officials have for months been working on a plan to safely coordinate a large-scale event in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The county officially gave the go-ahead to a spectator-less rodeo last week.
Mandatory health screenings for all contestants and workers, plus continuous waves of disinfecting and sanitation will be required.
“There will be different groups that will remain separate — i.e., volunteers, staff and contestants,” explained Gunnison County Public Information Officer Andrew Sandstrom in an email. “They have also been required to work with the city on an enforcement plan. They also have protocols for cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.”
Sandstrom noted as of now the rodeo is only permitted as a non-spectator event.
“We anticipate that they will request spectators, but we have yet to receive a plan with those details,” he wrote.
Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he and other county officials began working with Cattlemen’s Days organizers back in early May to work through a labyrinth of details on how to produce a safe event in the age of coronavirus. That included a full work session with the board, walk-throughs of the fairground and rodeo facilities and the ongoing, “conversation-like” nature of the application process.
“They’ve done a great job and been super diligent,” Houck said of Cattlemen’s Days organizers.
Some unsanctioned rodeos around the state have recently made headlines, including one in Elbert County that is reported to have led to a coronavirus outbreak and one hospitalization.
A big difference between these and what happens in Gunnison every year, organizers point out, is that Cattlemen’s Days is an official Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo.
“The PRCA has done an exemplary job providing COVID-19 guidance to rodeo committees on how to stage a rodeo in these times, and rodeos are now safely happening every weekend again throughout the U.S.A.,” said Cattlemen’s Days Vice President Mike Dawson, adding that a traditional “Watershed” event of local team roping and barrel racing, plus a “Ranch Rodeo,” are also being planned for the week leading up to Labor Day weekend.
County officials continually caution against the fluid nature of public health regulations. Were Gunnison County to slip into the more strict “Yellow” phase of coronavirus rules, Cattlemen’s Days would have to submit an adapted application for the differing restrictions, according to Sandstrom.
Houck said stricter regulations coming down from the state could be a potential wild card that could derail Cattlemen’s Days plans as well.
Meanwhile, event organizers are turning their attention to fundraising. A GoFundMe page has been set up, and organizers have begun reaching out to individuals and local businesses for financial support.
Coblentz emphasized that 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward covering the costs of this year’s event, with any leftover money going toward prize winnings for contestants.
Additionally, the event will be broadcast on The Cowboy Channel and organizers are also brainstorming ways to potentially set up video boards throughout town to showcase the action.
“We have a great deal of pride when it comes to Cattlemen’s Days and our rodeo,” Coblentz said. “We are proud of the history we have, and we’re excited to continue through our 120th straight year of having a rodeo.”
(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)