Masked ushers and small tables with hand sanitizer greeted spectators entering the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede arena on Wednesday night.
Just beyond, a young woman, also masked, sold $5 programs from behind a plywood and plexiglass booth, hand sanitizer at the ready.
A handful of printed signs posted around the grounds directed attendees to keep six feet from one another. Bright salmon fliers taped at intervals in the grandstands asked spectators, “TO ALLOW FOR SOCIAL DISTANCING, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING THIS ROW.”
The coronavirus pandemic, which had threatened to shut down the event in its entirety, was a palpable presence on opening night of the 101st year of the Cody Stampede.
But still, on the first evening of July in Cody, Wyoming, there was rodeo.
The show had initially been canceled with five other large rodeos across the state, including the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo and Cheyenne Frontier Days. So significant was the decision that Gov. Mark Gordon made the public announcement flanked by leaders of each of the six events.
Shortly after, however, the Cody Stampede Board balked and insisted that the show would go on. And indeed it did.
Along the way, compromises were made, such as the number of people allowed to attend. For the rodeo, the arena could seat a maximum of 2,835 people, or 40 percent of its capacity.
On Wednesday, the rodeo sold 2,080 tickets. The next night it sold 2,250. Ed Bednarz, general manager of the Stampede Board, said Friday that ticket sales, as of that morning, were close to the previous nights.
The finale, on the Fourth of July, sold out two days ahead of time.
When the show began on opening night, rodeo celebrity and master of ceremonies Boyd Polhamus acknowledged the strange circumstances in his introductory remarks.
“I’m not gonna tell you something you already know,” he said upon riding into the arena. “It’s different.”
But, he continued, “one thing hasn’t changed.” And that’s the show the Cody Stampede promises its spectators.
It’s a show the town has promised, and delivered on, every year since 1919. Six years before then, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody — famous for his Wild West Show — hosted his last rodeo in town. When he died four years later, some residents wanted to honor him with a rodeo in his name.
And so the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo was born.
The annual event, and its smaller local nightly rodeo, have become so iconic that tourists passing through on their way to Yellowstone have come to expect rodeo as part of the Western experience.
“We’ve never done anything like this, but we knew we were going to a rodeo,” Dan Felton explained Wednesday from the front row of the Stampede grandstands. He was joined by his wife, Julie, and their three boys.
The family was on a cross-country road trip, which started in their home state of Michigan and planned to wind through four national parks before its conclusion.
The family scheduled the trip before the pandemic began, but decided to stick it out regardless.
“We’re not going to stop living our lives,” Felton said.
Still, the pandemic has made the journey more difficult. It’s hard to anticipate which towns are going to be locked down and which will be open, he said. For this reason, the family was particularly grateful for the Cody Rodeo.
Nicole Wilson and her family felt similarly. Wednesday marked the 11th day of the Wilsons’ five-week journey across the U.S. They’re sticking mostly to national parks and campsites.
But planning for the trip has been difficult because it’s unclear where activities will be restricted and where things will feel more open.
“Even during the trip we’ve needed to make changes,” she said.
Families like the Wilsons and Feltons are common visitors to Wyoming, and they’ve been identified by the state as a key target to boost tourism during a calamitous economic downturn.
Cody’s role in that is unquestioned.
To underscore the significance of Cody as a historic icon of the West, in 2018 travelers accounted for nearly $400 million in spending in Park County.
A woman stationed at the Cody visitor’s center, identified as Linda by a block nametag, said the town felt strangely quiet for a Fourth of July weekend.
Normally it would be bustling, packed with not only rodeo fans but families and tourist buses coming through Yellowstone, she said.
And it’s true the town was sleepier than one would expect for being on the edge of a national park the first weekend of July, but only in comparison to the norm. The streets Wednesday were still full of people, navigating amongst each other, mostly unmasked.
The crowds drew a stark contrast to the many signs and other precautions established at the businesses lining the streets. Posters on tables asking patrons not to sit, in honor of social distancing. Handwritten signs taped to retail windows asking customers to wear a mask. Bottles of hand sanitizer were stationed in doorways.
Several nights a week during the summer, a handful of local actors perform a gun fight as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid outside of the Irma Hotel, across from a building that was once a bank the duo robbed together.
The Cody Trolley Tours, which hosts the show, lined folding chairs along the street and sold them for $3 a pop. Otherwise, viewers could observe from the sidewalk, the curb or wherever they could squeeze themselves in.
The actors themselves made a joke or two regarding social distancing, but the practice was widely ignored by the audience during the performance, which received approval from the state, Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin said.
At the rodeo Wednesday night, masked spectators were scarce but present. The crowd was an amalgamation, it seemed, of people not from Wyoming. When the rodeo clown, Justin Rumford, asked the audience how many were from elsewhere, at least two-thirds of the hands raised. Every spectator the Star-Tribune spoke with Wednesday was from out of state.
It’s an issue Park County is likely going to have to contend with for the foreseeable future: balancing economic necessities with practices meant to limit the transmission of a virus that has killed more than 130,000 people in the U.S. since March.
Billin called it “adjusting to a new normal.”
The rodeo took place amid a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases, both in Park County and the state as a whole. In the last week, cases in the county rose by 167%, with 54 lab confirmed cases as of Friday.
Billin said in an interview Tuesday it did make him nervous to see such a spike heading into a large tourism weekend, but he felt the Cody Stampede Board was taking appropriate precautions.
“We all agree that extra caution is advised,” Billin said. Which is why, he said, anyone with a heightened risk of complications from the virus, or anyone in close contact with a higher risk person, was being advised to stay home.
But the point of flattening the curve, he added, was to have infections occur over several months rather than weeks, and “All of Wyoming was successful in doing that.”
For events like the Cody Stampede Rodeo and parade, the real difference maker is that they are held outdoors, the doctor explained. Billin referenced a study conducted in China. The study showed of 1,000 transmissions of the virus, only one occurred outdoors.
Billin said that and accompanying research makes it clear outdoor events are “much safer” than indoor events.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist has made similar comments about outdoor events being considered safer than indoor ones. But Harrist has also pointed to the public’s desire to get out and participate in normal summer activities as a potential cause for spikes around the state.
“I think that, especially as spring and summer have arrived and there was such a long period of time where a lot of activities were restricted, that people are out and participating in activities,” she said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. “And I think that it’s not like they can’t do that, but that there is a way to do that safely and to take relatively simple precautions to both help prevent yourself from getting infected but also to help prevent the spread of infections within your communities as a whole.”
It ultimately comes down to balance, Billin said.
“We have to responsibly take steps that help support our economy while picking the low-hanging fruit such as social distancing, staying home when you’re sick and wearing a mask when you can’t stay six feet from other people,” he continued.
Still, many in Park County, as elsewhere, have been resistant to these recommendations. The consequences of that are being seen in the county’s current spike in cases, Billin said.
Nonetheless, the doctor was adamant that it’s possible to host public events safely. So far he has been successful in getting approval from the state for six events in Park County, with a seventh currently being considered for the Cody Beer Mile.
Many in the rodeo community expressed gratitude for efforts to keep events scheduled, even amid a pandemic. That was particularly the case for the Cody Stampede Board, which resisted an initial plan by the state’s six largest rodeos to cancel their events this year.
“As a cowboy, having Cody step up and maybe do something that a lot of other rodeos were scared to do, that means a lot to us,” said Cole Reiner, a Kaycee native and bareback rider. “We haven’t had a rodeo, like a big rodeo, since March, and you know, that’s kind of all of our livelihoods.”
Reiner competed in a handful of rodeos over the winter, and a few in Texas in early spring, which set him up all right financially for the winter. But he said the Cody Rodeo will have a huge impact on which cowboys earn enough money from competing to qualify for the national competition in Las Vegas.
Bridger Anderson, a steer wrestler from North Dakota, echoed those comments.
“(Winning the Cody Stampede) wouldn’t necessarily give you a ticket into the finals, but it dang sure helps,” Bridger said, given how few rodeos there are for contestants to try to qualify at.
Anderson himself is just getting back into the swing of the rodeo season. He, like all of his peers, has been sidelined since March by the pandemic. On Tuesday, he and his team were in Oakley, Utah. After Cody, they’ll be on their way to a handful of more shows, but the team plans to be home within nine days.
“Usually right now, we wouldn’t just be taking off for a nine-day run, we’d be just into the first part of about a six-week run,’ he said.
It’s not only cowboys who are grateful to the Cody Stampede this year.
Tim Amodeo and his family travel the rodeo circuit, selling rides on a mechanical bull: $10 for three tries.
Usually they start in Mississippi, their home state, and travel up the country, hitting as many rodeos as they can on the way. They typically come to Cody on June 1 and stay until the end of the Stampede.
Amodeo said he and his family weren’t even set on Cody because of how in flux the event had been in the lead-up. When the rodeo finally got approval, half the month had passed.
“We waited, we just waited,” Amodeo said.
The family relies on rodeo for almost all of its income, he said. “That’s been cut in half this year.”
He will likely pick up ranch hand work in the fall to make ends meet. So the family is glad the Cody rodeo was still happening. Still, relying on a traveling income right now was causing some anxiety for Amodeo, too.
“It’s kind of scary in a way,” he said in a soft Mississippi drawl. “I’ve never been one to carry GermX in my pocket, but now,” he said, patting his jeans.
Boyd Polhamus, the master of ceremonies, kept his promise opening night. The crowd cheered with the cowboys, and laughed at the clown.
Inside the grounds, some guests paid $10 for a photo atop a rather sedate bull named Mongo. Others handed over $10 for three tries on the mechanical bull.
A constant parade of hot dogs and nacho cheese flowed from the concessions stand. Children in button-downs and cowboy hats played with toy lassos. More than a few beers were left spilled in the stands.
When it was all over, the crowd left row by row, rather than all at once — one more effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Not everyone followed this directive, but at least half did.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites