Eagle County Fair is latest summer event canceled over COVID-19 restrictions
Pro rodeo action won't happen this summer, but county staff is looking to salvage 4-H contests and exhibits
EAGLE — For eight decades, the Eagle County Fair has been a beloved local tradition.
But in 2020, the event is the latest big COVID-19 related community cancellation.
On Tuesday, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners discussed plans for the 81st annual Eagle County Fair & Rodeo following a May 6 meeting of the fair’s advisory board. Fair board members cited the challenges of operating an event that could comply with COVID-19 restrictions when the fair and rodeo attracts thousands of attendees over a weeklong schedule. They opted to recommend the cancellation of the 2020 celebration.
“The nature of the event is that contestants, contractors and attendees are typically from areas outside of Eagle County, the state and many are international,” said the fair board’s written recommendation. “The approximate gathering size over the period is 14,000 attendees, 200 contractors and vendors and 400 contestants.”
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Going by Eagle County’s own COVID-19 trail map, the most optimistic scenario would involve gatherings of no more than 250 people at a time by July 22, which was the originally scheduled rodeo debut date.
The fair board also concluded it wouldn’t be practical to stage the event later in the summer or during the early fall months.
“Staff has been in touch with other Colorado counties and most are in the same position as Eagle,” noted the fair board recommendation.
“I have to tell you this is a tough conversation to have today. We have worked really hard to build up a good reputation,” said Jan Miller, the facilities manager for Eagle County, during this week’s county commissioner discussion.
Tanya Dahlseid, fair manager, said the fair board extensively discussed alternatives to cancellation, including a virtual rodeo. However, that option just didn’t seem to be a worthwhile alternative, she noted.
Miller said the estimated cost for a virtual rodeo would be around $250,000. That is $100,000 more than the annual county event subsidy.
Can 4-H competitions be salvaged?
“This really is a tough call. This is, as you know, close to my heart,” said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, who was an Eagle County 4-H participant as a youngster.
But she noted that cancellation of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association competition is really the only practical solution in a COVID-19 era. Chandler-Henry pointed out that the county subsidizes the fair and rodeo even in good years with strong revenues. But 2020 is unlikely to be a good year for the event. What’s more, Chandler-Henry noted that other fair and rodeo community sponsors also have been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic impacts and those businesses would likely struggle to pay their event sponsorships.
But while they supported canceling the overall event for this summer, the commissioners asked if the 4-H competitions and exhibitions could be salvaged. That’s what the county’s Colorado State Extension staff is working on.
“We have been in a lot of conversations of how we could make this work and how it would look,” said Jenny Leonetti, the county’s 4-H/youth development director.
Glenda Wentworth, Eagle County extension director, said the office is working on a plan to conduct livestock contests and judging while complying with the standards spelled out in the county’s public health orders. In particular, 2020 may feature a virtual junior livestock sale.
Chandler-Henry noted that perhaps by midsummer, a very scaled-back fair event could be staged. “People will be hungry for some type of event by July,” she noted.
Wentworth said the fair would likely be very limited, to just participants and judges. She noted Colorado State University hasn’t issued any recommendations regarding the upcoming county fair season, but the early indication is CSU will instruct extension staff to look to individual county guidelines in planning events.
On that topic, Eagle County is taking early action. Miller noted that on the PRCA schedule, around half of the national rodeo events are canceled through the end of June. Additionally, some big rodeos, including the Greeley Stampede, have been called off for 2020.
Miller said the local fair team suspects that other Colorado rodeo events are waiting for one county to cancel before making a decision about the 2020 summer season.
“Are we going to be that first domino?” asked Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.
The county fair staff replied that yes, Eagle County may be.
“But we are getting a lot of phone calls right now and it would be good to have a definitive answer,” she said.
“I think it is a tough recommendation, but I think it is the right one,” said Commissioner Matt Scherr about the cancellation plan. “I do love the idea of still being able to hold the 4-H fair.”
The commissioners also loved the idea of communicating that while the fair and rodeo won’t happen in 2020, it will be back better and than ever in 2021.
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After a sudden stop in March and extended isolation, people may be ready to travel or play. But don’t expect a full-throttle return this summer.