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Crooked River Roundup leaders plan to hold the rodeo and horse races in person after canceling the events last year

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Will summer events return in 2021?

At this time last year, local residents had little if any reason to expect most of the landmark summer events in town to get canceled.

The community was fresh off of a well-attended Crooked River Roundup Gala, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the iconic Crook County event. The Prineville Follies still packed the local high school auditorium in early March, and people expected to pack the fairgrounds' outdoor arena for both the rodeo and horse races.

Everybody knows the rest. COVID-19 became a despised new way of life that canceled anything that might draw even the smallest of crowds – not just in Crook County but essentially around the world.

In the same way that people didn't know what the future held in February 2020, people don't know what the summer of 2021 will bring to Crook County. The pandemic continues, but case totals are declining nationwide. Two vaccines are getting distributed and others could soon follow. Could this summer be different? Will the events residents cherish move forward this year? The short answer, so far, is yes, they will.

Roundup Board President Jason Snider has been thinking about "Re-Ride 75" for the past three months.

"We have had small groups gathering together," he says of the early planning stages. "What does it look like? – the reality of budget, you know, dollar and cents."

In the spirit of re-ride (when rodeo competitors get another attempt at their event) Roundup leaders have rolled forward all of their contracts from the previous COVID-canceled event. Everything from stock contracts to announcers to bullfighters to barrel men are all lined up to return this summer – even the Roundup queen and grand marshals from 2020 will be back for the 2021 event.

But the big question Roundup leaders face for both the rodeo and the races is how many people they can usher through the gates. And if that number is limited, are there other ways to give would-be spectators a show?

"How do you evolve? How do you adapt? How do you potentially put other viewing areas together that mimic what they would be seeing in the arena?" Snider asks.

So far, they don't have answers, but Roundup leaders will eventually reach a point where a decision must get made – and that will involve an ongoing collaboration with local health officials.

"You want to go to them with a plan," Snider said. "You want to have a clear picture on how you are going to give folks the safest means to participate … We have to, at some point, be able to get to a target – by this date, we have got to have as close to a clear picture as we can."

However, one thing seems certain at this point – the show will go on in 2021.

"That's all we know to do right now – full steam with as much positive outlook as you can," Snider said. "You want to be prepared if you can go."

Sandwiched between the rodeo and the races lies the Fourth of July, which historically involves a variety of events from a pancake breakfast, parade and Splash 'N Dash competition early in the day to steam engine train rides and park festivities in the afternoon. And of course, a fireworks show caps off the Independence Day celebration.

Last year, community leaders were able to salvage the fireworks display, and the 5K running portion of the Splash 'N Dash went forward – the only live footrace held locally in 2020. But everything else, with the exception of a modified parade, got canceled.

Little is officially planned at this point for Independence Day 2021, but parks and recreation district and chamber of commerce leaders have begun developing a plan – one that will feature a lot more than last year.

"We have not ironed out any details yet for the Fourth of July event," said Eli Tomlinson, Crook County Parks and Recreation District recreation coordinator. "As of now, I foresee it happening this year unless things shut down again."

Moving into August, the Crook County Fair appears poised to take place again. The summer event is the only landmark attraction that took place locally in 2020. In fact, it was the only one in the region and one of just a few in the state that moved forward.

"I will say, right off the bat, that we will have a fair," said Fairgrounds Manager Casey Daly. "We don't know what it's going to look like yet. It might look a lot like last year, it might look similar to fairs in the past. It's going to be based on what the governor's restrictions will allow at the time."

Last summer, the fair was spread beyond its traditional fairgrounds borders to keep crowds within state guidelines. Animal showing and the livestock auction took place at the fairgrounds as usual, but they were closed to the public. A single concert with limited admission was also held at the fairgrounds pavilion – but everything else took place off site. Exhibits were viewed and judged virtually, and the booths and attractions that typically fill the grounds were spread throughout downtown, with spectators guided by a walking map to keep crowd numbers down.

"The fair that we held last year was very successful for FFA and 4-H kids and it worked really well with projects and showing," Daly said.

However, fair leaders hope to provide a more typical fair this summer and planning is already under way. They already plan to offer a headline entertainer, and they are in discussions with carnival providers to see if they could set up in Crook County.

"A lot of it depends on the sanitation," Daly explained. "The guidelines that the governor puts into place guides how the carnival will operate."

Factors to consider include rider spacing, number of riders per attraction and cleaning between rides.

Because the pandemic has saddled everyone with a moving target of restrictions, Daly said that fair leaders are going to stay very nimble. Even though they benefit from a later start date than other local events – which theoretically gives more time for the pandemic to subside – last minute changes can create potential problems.

"We share equipment with both Jefferson and Deschutes county (fairs), so our stuff leaves here, and it goes to Jefferson and Deschutes," Daly offered as an example. "We are keeping our fingers crossed that we don't have a lot of changes between the time all of our equipment leaves here (and when it comes back) because there is not a lot of time on the back end to recover, to modify things."

In the same way that the details of 2021 summer events are not all known, health officials aren't certain what case totals and state restrictions Crook County will face by summertime. Vicky Ryan, Crook County's emergency preparedness coordinator, said that local case numbers are coming down and she expects the community to join the "high" risk category at some point in April. Going forward, continued vaccination and adherence to mask use are expected to propel the downward trend into the summer months. Movement to lower risk categories could happen. But Ryan stops short of predicting herd immunity, lack of masks or the state allowing large crowds by the early summer.

"It may well be through the summer that we are still in the mode of precaution," she said. "It's not an outcome that people want to hear, but unless the state changes their metrics, that is what we have to comply with."

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