Oakley will hold annual Fourth of July rodeo, though officials warn it’s a public health risk
The Oakley Rodeo will be back this Fourth of July, city officials decided Wednesday, becoming the first large summer event in Summit County to announce plans to go forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme, seeming to express skepticism about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic on the East Side, said Oakley had the opportunity to serve as an example for the rest of the state.
“We’ve never been a city that’s a bunch of quitters,” Woolstenhulme said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting when the plan to hold the event was approved. “We’ve got to show people that you can live. … One event’s got to happen in this state to prove that things can happen and, guess what, we’re gonna live through it.”
The Oakley City Council Wednesday voted to hold the annual rodeo, but with extra safety precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic including sanitization protocols, limited attendance and a mandate that attendees wear face coverings. Councilor Joe Frazier abstained.
“Safety is the primary factor,” Councilor Tom Smart said. “The last thing that we would want to do is taint the rodeo because we weren’t safe.”
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough, however, said the rodeo is a public health risk, something he’s communicated to Woolstenhulme.
“The East Side in general has been very fortunate — to some extent they’ve escaped this so far,” Bullough said. “What I’ve shared with all the East Side mayors is they run a risk by holding events like that, of bringing it into the community. They need to decide if that’s what they want to do.”
At the meeting Wednesday, which was held in-person rather than virtually, the mayor seemed to indicate the COVID-19 pandemic had received an outsized response.
“I’ve worked my whole life in education and I’ve been around 400 kids every day of my life, and I’ve had them spit in my face, breathe in my face. You know what — for the first few years I was (sick constantly),” said the mayor, who is also the principal of South Summit High School. “But you know what, I got through it.”
Woolstenhulme did not immediately return a phone call requesting additional comment.
He also said the South Summit area had relatively few cases of COVID-19.
While Woolstenhulme has expressed personal skepticism about the pandemic response, Bullough said the mayor has taken the responsibility to protect the community seriously.
But Bullough cautioned that the first cases that hit the Park City area were from outside visitors, a pattern that could be repeated with a large event.
“We very clearly were impacted by travel cases early on,” Bullough said. “There’s still a risk there and if the East Side communities are attracting individuals to events, they’re going to increase their risk.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, the mayor appeared determined that the rodeo go forward.
“It makes a lot of sense to me. I guess they can outvote me if they don’t want to have it,” he said, referencing the City Council. “But then again, I’ll make decisions after that.”
The Fourth of July rodeo is an annual tradition in the East Side city, which has a population of around 1,500 but routinely sells out its 5,500-seat stadium for the multi-day celebration. Many residents volunteer to keep the rodeo going, and it provides key revenue for the city, Smart said.
Under Gov. Gary Herbert’s low-risk guidelines, Oakley did not require permission from the county Health Department to hold the rodeo, but Bullough said the department and the city have been working together.
The department effectively capped the number of spectators at around 850 each night, Smart said.
The Oakley City Council has heard from several people who oppose holding the rodeo, with one woman at the meeting Wednesday asking why the city should go forward with the event if it poses a health risk and the financial benefit is questionable.
In a back-and-forth with the woman, the mayor said she could keep her family home from the rodeo if she was frightened about the health effects.
“It doesn’t mean … I’m not going to run into somebody at the post office,” she replied.
Smart estimated this year’s rodeo would cost about $117,000, a substantial reduction from previous years as events and programs have been cut. Sponsors have remained very generous, Smart said, and he thought it likely the rodeo would make a modest return, a point Woolstenhulme echoed.
“I will guarantee you, if we don’t break even on this thing, you’ll have my resignation,” the mayor said.
A city staffer reported she had fielded many phone calls with mixed feedback ranging from people urging a return to normalcy to those who were shocked the city was considering holding the rodeo at all.
Spectators at this year’s rodeo will be limited to groups of up to 10 people from the same household and will be spread across a stadium about 85% empty, Smart said.
Everyone entering the stadium will be given an Oakley Rodeo bandana, and those not wearing a face covering may be escorted out, Smart wrote in an email to The Park Record.
He said, while it hasn’t been easy, it was important to preserve the tradition of the rodeo.
“Our whole city is known for the rodeo,” Smart said. “We are proud of that reputation, we want to continue to have that. That’s why we think it’s important to have a healthy rodeo.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to indicate City Councilor Joe Frazier abstained from the vote.
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