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The Summer Without Rodeos

Around the country, but mostly in small towns in the West, hundreds of professional rodeos have been canceled.

STONYFORD, Calif. — Tucked into the hard wrinkles of Northern California foothills, the one-stop-sign town of Stonyford can feel like the middle of nowhere.

Zoe Brandenberger, one of about 200 residents, has spent most of her life in Stonyford.

“Right when you think you’re lost,” she said while offering driving directions, “you’re about here.”

Stonyford could always count on a few crowded days every year during its annual three-day rodeo, when the town’s population swells into the thousands.

Out-of-towners stay for much of a week. Pickups, campers and trailers, paying $25 each, fill the field behind Brother Moore Arena. There are nightly dances and rodeo queens. There is a pancake breakfast and a parade.

The air is filled with dust, noise and the smells of barbecue and barn animals.

“It totally transforms this town,” said Barbara Leach, a resident. “You have traffic.

Not this year. There was no 77th Stonyford Rodeo. Not with the coronavirus.

On the blue-skied spring Friday that the rodeo was supposed to start, the grandstands were empty, the chutes filled with tumbleweeds. At the Stonyford General Store, the only store in town, there were more points on the antlers of the giant elk head mounted above the register than there were customers.

Stonyford General Store is the only store in Stonyford.Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times 

A taxidermy fox and bobcat preside over the sporting goods section of the Stonyford General Store.Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times 

“It’s sad because we’ve always had the rodeo,” said Ms. Brandenberger, who leads the Stony Creek Horsemen’s Association, which runs the rodeo.

She looked around the empty arena, named after her father, and sighed.

Around the country, but mostly in small towns in the West, hundreds of professional rodeos have been canceled — hard blows to tradition and economics. In many places, the rodeo is the biggest event on the annual calendar.

Some rodeos, like Stonyford, with $18,000 in prize money, are relatively small affairs. Some, like Cheyenne Frontier Days or the Calgary Stampede, are immense undertakings that last a week or two and, besides being daily rodeos with $1 million or more in payouts, are filled with concerts, carnivals and livestock shows.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the governing body of about 700 annual rodeos, estimates that about half will not take place in 2020. Those still on the schedule are working with fingers crossed, some moving dates to buy more time.

A few small rodeos in places like Woodward, Okla., and Mesquite, Texas, took place recently, but most rodeos in June are canceled.

“Covid-19 has impacted the entire country, every business you can think of,” said George Taylor, chief executive of the P.R.C.A. “Our business is a representation of that, but also represents a loss of community — something that brings these small towns together.”

Rodeo holds a unique spot in the American sports landscape. Golf, NASCAR, even the professional bull riding tour have resurrected made-for-television events from sequestered locations, mostly without fans. The N.B.A., N.H.L. and Major League Soccer are among those creating plans to quarantine teams all together to resume games far from their home arenas and stadiums.

Rodeos are different. They are not a league, but a loose coalition of community events, usually run by nonprofit organizations and volunteers.

The point is the place.

“Right when you think you’re lost, you’re about here,” said Zoe Brandenberger of Stonyford while offering driving directions.Credit : Max Whittaker for The New York Times 

You cannot move the Pendleton Round-Up to Texas from Oregon. Cheyenne Frontier Days cannot be held at Walt Disney World. Stonyford Rodeo cannot be moved to someplace else.

“We wouldn’t have a town without a rodeo,” said Dale Seidel of Burwell, Neb., where Nebraska’s Big Rodeo has been the big annual event since 1921.

While the Nebraska Sandhills and nearby Calamus Lake are draws to Burwell, nothing is a booster shot like the rodeo. This year’s event, scheduled July 22-25, is still on, for now.

“You put 20,000 people through a 1,000-people town, it is Christmas time for the businesses in Burwell,” Mr. Seidel said.

In late May, when Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming tearfully announced the cancellation of July’s Cheyenne Frontier Days for the first time in its 124-year history, he was surrounded by representatives of other canceled Wyoming rodeos. They were socially distanced, wearing masks and cowboy hats.

At least one went rogue. On Mother’s Day, a crowd estimated at 1,800 disobeyed stay-at-home orders and showed up to a rodeo (not sanctioned by the P.R.C.A.) in Cottonwood, Calif. It drew the ire of county officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Mr. Taylor worries that, like restaurants or stores on Main Streets across the country, some rodeos will close permanently, too

The campground next to Stonyford’s rodeo arena was empty this year.Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times 

“Covid-19 is forever going to leave a mark on rodeo,” Mr. Taylor said. “Whether it’s the loss of some rodeos, whether it’s businesses that were impacted, whether it’s the number of cowboys that have to go find something else to do, and then don’t ever come back.”

Lost rodeos are big blows to the 5,000 registered cowboys and cowgirls who compete each year, including bronc riders, steer wrestlers, calf ropers, bull riders and barrel racers.

P.R.C.A. rodeos handed out $60 million in prize money in 2019. That sum is likely to be cut by more than half in 2020. And shutdowns may be even harder on stock contractors, those who breed, raise and supply the animals to ride, wrestle and rope.

But the broader worry is on the network of rodeos themselves.

The precautions and shutdowns can feel overblown to people involved in rodeo. Many are in rural areas with few cases of the virus. They tend to lean conservative.

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