(CHEYENNE, WY / The Associated Press) Cheyenne Frontier Days was canceled Wednesday because of the coronavirus pandemic, marking the first time the event billed as the world's largest outdoor rodeo has been called off in its 124-year history.
City and state officials announced the decision.
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 told The Associated Press.
"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.
Known as the "Daddy of 'em all," the event features a rodeo that's 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.
Stetson Wright was the all-around and bull-riding champion at Frontier Days last summer. He was looking forward to his title defense. More than that, he was looking forward to just competing again with numerous rodeo events postponed, rescheduled or canceled due to the virus.
"It's a bummer that it's shut down this year but I'm sure with the way Cheyenne rolls, it's going to be way bigger and better next year," Wright said in a phone interview from Beaver, Utah. "That's going to be one rodeo you don't want to miss for fans and for contestants."
Officials tried to brainstorm for solutions to keep the storied event on track. They couldn't uncover one in a safe manner.
"We worked hard as a group," Frontier Days President and CEO Tom Hirsig said in a news conference with Gov. Mark Gordon. "One of the worst things we could do would be to cause our state to go backward in the recovery process."
Choking up as he reminisced about his own involvement in rodeo as a youth, Gordon announced he would ease up on public health orders to allow outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people but no more.
"This coronavirus thing sucks. There are just no two ways about it," Gordon said. "Some think it's no big deal. Others are worried sick. The fact is, we need both groups to attend our rodeos, and feel safe, if these rodeos are to be successful."
Frontier Days pumps millions of dollars into the Cheyenne-area economy and some shops get by largely on those two weeks out of the year when their business booms.
"One of the things that's worried us most is the psyche of our businesses. Them just staying with it. This is just another hit. It's going to have a huge impact on us. It is our identity," Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dale Steenbergen said.
Wyoming is the least-populated U.S. state, has had relatively few cases of the coronavirus and its 14 deaths as of Wednesday ranked near the bottom of U.S. states in COVID-19 deaths overall and per capita.
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.
The 250-person limit on outdoor gatherings could allow Wyoming's very smallest weekend rodeos this summer but along with Frontier Days scrubbed several of the state's other bigger ones including the Cody Stampede and Laramie Jubilee Days.
About 14,000 showed up for the final round of Cheyenne Frontier Days on the last day of the rodeo in 2019.
"It is really a sad day in Cheyenne that this is not going to happen this year," Steenbergen said. "But I'm talking to people who are already saying, 'All right, so we double-down on '21.' I do think we will do that. This is not going to be an event that slides away into our memory."