For much of the last week, as South by Southwest folded, Rice University canceled classes, and serious coronavirus concerns continued to manifest in stark, observable reality, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo remained steadfast, refusing to abort an event that lures several million visitors to NRG Stadium each year.
Organizers’ rationale for forging ahead appeared to be based on a fairly simple premise, one containing more than a hint of pride: unlike SXSW, with its imported army of slick, globalized hipsters, the rodeo is—and always has been—an overwhelmingly local, homegrown celebration.
Even last week, when numerous confirmed COVID-19 cases began popping up in the Houston area among a group of international travelers, rodeo officials continued to push back against chattering critics, releasing a statement touting statistics proving that a majority of its attendees come from Texas.
But on Wednesday—the same day health officials admitted a Houston man has mysteriously acquired the virus without leaving the area—the rodeo’s resistance to the dispiriting reality of a modern pandemic finally came crashing down.
Speaking to assembled media at city hall, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, flanked by forlorn county health officials and city council members, admitted that the arrival of a community-spread COVID-19 case—the first disconnected from international travel—changed officials’ calculus, forcing them to do what they’d been resisting for days: cancel the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“That changed things,” Turner said, referring to the Montgomery County case—a man, officials later admitted, who had contact with multiple people in Harris County as well. “For those of us who are Texans through and through and from our region, you know just how much we love the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” he added. “You know, this decision has not come easily, but the health and safety of people in our region is paramount. We’ll make the necessary decision to keep everyone safe.”
By the end of the day, Turner said, he plans to sign an emergency health declaration for the city of Houston. The declaration will remain in place for one week, at which point a city council vote will be required for its extension.
This is not a time for people to panic and be fearful.
We are basing our decisions based on facts. The decisions we made in regards to @RODEOHOUSTON was not made in a vacuum.
— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) March 11, 2020
Turner was followed by Dr. David Persse, the health authority for the Houston Health Department, who reiterated the urgency behind the rodeo’s cancellation and pointed out that COVID-19 is “spreading very rapidly.” The goal, he said, is to prevent “what happened in Wuhan,” a reference to the rapid, uncontrolled dissemination of the virus from the large, centrally located Chinese hub.
“What we are trying to do with these very aggressive and, yes, painful decisions, is slow down the virus,” he said. “We have every reason to expect it can spread to many, many people in our community.
“If everybody gets sick at the same time we won’t have hospital beds available,” he added.
As the press conference wound down, rodeo officials released a statement officially announcing the cancellation and noting that the “safety and well-being of our guests and our community is our top priority.” The annual event began March 3 and was scheduled to run through March 22.
“The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has been a fabric of this community since 1932,” the statement continued. “Having to close early is extremely difficult as guests, volunteers, exhibitors, rodeo athletes and entertainers look forward to the 20 days of the Rodeo each year.”
“We look forward to the 2021 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to continue to promote agriculture, education, entertainment and Western heritage,” the statement added. “We will provide additional information as it becomes available. Updates will be posted at rodeohouston.com/2020.”
In the interest of public health, the City of Houston and the Houston Health Department have ordered the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ to close. The grounds will close at 4 pm More info >> https://t.co/jDO5pQEFhf pic.twitter.com/qL5KgjRnaE
— RODEOHOUSTON (@RODEOHOUSTON) March 11, 2020
On Wednesday afternoon, a stream of pickup trucks hauling animals and equipment flowed out of the NRG Stadium parking lot. Among the stragglers drifting toward their cars, several rodeogoers, like Fort Worth native Nicole Rodriguez, said they were shocked that the rodeo had concluded so suddenly, even after events like SXSW were canceled last week.
Rodriguez, who was showing a Boer goat that she and her daughter had been raising since September, estimated she’d invested about $2,000 in this year’s Houston Rodeo—a figure that included travel, tickets and hotel costs.
“It does seem like the virus spreads pretty quickly, so I understand the concern, but it’s just frustrating,” Rodriguez says. “I spent $300 on concert tickets alone and I took a week of vacation to come down here.”
Other participants, like Huntsville rancher Sidney Grisham, who provides horses to the rodeo yearly and who has been coming to the event since 1962, voiced their displeasure more forcefully.
“There’s only two things that have happened in my life that have shocked me,” Grisham grumbled, sitting in his truck and coordinating the removal of dozens of horses in a makeshift stable outside NRG Stadium. “The first was the Houston Oilers moving to Tennessee. The second was the rodeo being shut down today!”
Grisham, who emphasized he was speaking on his own behalf and not for rodeo officials. expressed skepticism about the danger posed by COVID-19.
“Find out how many people died of gunshot wounds or in car wrecks or from the flu today and compare that to how many people have been killed by the coronavirus in Houston,” he said. “This whole thing is ridiculous!”
Houston’s rodeo officially traces its roots back to 1932, according to the organization. By the sixties, the event was moved to the Astrodome, where it began drawing large, indoor crowds. These days, the rodeo routinely draws tens of thousands of visitors a day. On certain days, particularly during major concerts and the weekend, the number of daily visitors often breaks 100,000. The all-time high for rodeo attendance was 2.6 million people in 2017. The event’s total operating expenses approached $150 million last year alone.
And yet, the potential economic toll triggered by the rodeo’s cancellation could dwarf that number. Citing a recent study by Economic Analytics Consulting, the Houston Chronicle reported that the event generated $227 million in total economic impact in 2019, in addition to supporting nearly 3,700 jobs.
Ironically, amid the spread of COVID-19, the immense size of the rodeo, which is reflected in its hefty economic impact, is also partly responsible for its undoing. As the rodeo marched on, attracting tens of thousands of daily visitors, the pressure to cancel mounted. That pressure likely intensified after the cancellation of SXSW’s and CERAWeek Houston, an annual energy conference that draws oil and gas executives from as many as eighty countries. There were numerous calls for the event to be shut down on Twitter, many of which referenced an online petition calling that had reached more than 11,000 signatures.
“As covid19 spreads across our nation, many of us our [sic] concerned that large gatherings puts us all at risk of further community spread,” the petition says. “Other organizations are cancelling expos, concerts, conferences, and other events all across our nation, and we believe that the Houston Rodeo should do the same. We hope that they will reconsider continuing, and put health, safety, and lives first.”