By Mead Gruver and Pat Graham, The Associated Press
CHEYENNE — Cheyenne Frontier Days, billed as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, has been canceled for the first time in its 124-year history due to the coronavirus, the city’s mayor told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Event organizers decided the risk of spreading the virus was too great for the more than 140,000 people who visit the city for Frontier Days over the last two weeks in July, Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr said in an interview.
“What this pandemic means is we just can’t come together,” Orr said. “We really have to stay apart so we can come together again sooner rather than later. It’s clear that we just aren’t going to be ready for this.”
Frontier Days carried on through both world wars and the Great Depression, when tough finances prompted it to become a mostly volunteer-run event.
To this day, a small army of local volunteers runs the Western heritage festival of rodeo, music concerts, carnival rides, parades and downtown pancake breakfasts that feed thousands of people at a time.
Bars all over Cheyenne are typically standing-room-only during Frontier Days as people try line dancing and mechanical bull-riding.
The rodeo is also a big draw for top rodeo athletes. A Frontier Days belt buckle is among the sport’s most coveted prizes and the event’s payouts of more $1 million in payouts are lucrative in the rodeo circuit.
Frontier Days pumps up to $28 million into the local economy and some shops get by largely for the year on those two weeks of booming business.
Wyoming is the least-populated U.S. state, has had relatively few cases of the coronavirus and its 13 deaths as of Wednesday ranked near the bottom of U.S. states in COVID-19 deaths overall and per capita.
Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, has gradually lifted restrictions on businesses, allowing people to go to bars and dine in at restaurants. He supported last week’s reopening of Grand Teton National Park and the partial reopening of Yellowstone National Park, which for now is accessible through Wyoming but not Montana.
Tourism is Wyoming’s second-biggest industry after coal mining and other fossil-fuel extraction. But recent surges of the virus in the cities of Casper and Laramie have worried health officials that some residents may not be taking social-distancing seriously.
Gordon announced Wednesday that starting Monday, he would allow outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people — a big expansion from the previous limit of 25 and one that would allow the smallest rodeos to take place.
“It’s time we had the chance to enjoy summer,” Gordon said in a statement. “The ability to gather outdoors in larger groups will be good for Wyoming citizens, businesses and our communities as we enter the season.”
About 14,000 showed up for the final round of the rodeo on the last day of the event in 2019.