Days before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off, area politicians celebrated this great piece of Americana — dubbed the world’s largest livestock show — which was going forward in the age of the coronavirus.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 29-year-old rising political star, posted on Facebook on Feb. 28 how “pumped” she was for rodeo season, sharing a list of her favorite songs. “Look forward to seeing y’all there! #RodeoHouston.”
She also reassured residents that “the overall risk of COVID-19 to the general public within our counties remains low at this time.”
Not to be outdone, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner donned a black suit and cowboy hat and posted a video of himself line dancing to the “wobble.”
But over at the Rodeo Houston headquarters, organizers worried that the 20-day event would have to be shut down early as they watched a global increase in coronavirus cases. While COVID-19 had not been confirmed in Houston at that point, they knew it was a matter of time.
“Do we really think the rodeo will be shut down?” they asked Dr. Kelly Larkin, an ER physician and longtime board member of the rodeo.
Yes, she said.
Enough evidence existed that “something was probably going to develop during that time period. We just didn’t know how or when,” she told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
A review by the news organizations of thousands of emails, social media posts, press releases and public comments by civic and municipal leaders, along with interviews, shows that government leaders, health officials and rodeo organizers knew that once the novel coronavirus was detected here, they would have to shut down the rodeo. Many in the community were urging organizers and city leaders to cancel the event.
“It is my belief that you should use your authority to basically shut down the Houston Rodeo or at least those components of it that will take place in a closed arena,” attorney Seth Chandler, the former director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, wrote to Dr. David Persse, the head of the city’s Health Department, before opening day.
Chandler, who had worked with Persse on seminars involving the Zika virus, added, “I know full well the Rodeo is hardly the only potential source of spread in Texas. But it strikes me as the most serious threat. We can, of course, wait until we have confirmed cases, and doing so might make a closure more politically palatable. But by the time we discover a confirmed case, there are likely 50 circulating in the community…”
Organizers and other key leaders shared little of these concerns with the public and instead remained on message: COVID-19 was not a local threat and the 20-day rodeo would go on.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the city’s largest annual event, attracting 2.5 million people and generating nearly $400 million in economic activity for the region. Thousands of kids spend their entire year preparing for the livestock show.
Ultimately, on March 11, after eight days, the rodeo shut down. A police officer from a neighboring county who attended a pre-rodeo barbecue tested positive for COVID-19 — evidence that it was now spreading in the community. The health department is now confident the officer caught the virus at the rodeo.
So far, at least 18 people who attended the rodeo and live in four counties surrounding Houston have tested positive for the coronavirus, though it is unclear if they all contracted it at the event. The city of Houston, which reports its cases separately, did not provide ProPublica and the Tribune with its updated figure, saying it is busy responding to COVID-19.
The actual number of people with ties to the rodeo who were infected may never be known. While testing remains problematic across the United States, Texas ranks among the worst in the country.
Persse, who also serves as medical director for the rodeo’s safety committee, said no one wanted to make a rushed decision, fearing they would lose the public’s confidence. At the end of day, he said, “the community has got to believe we have their overall interest at heart.”
Claus Wilke, a University of Texas at Austin biologist who studies the evolution of viruses, believes the rodeo should have closed earlier, although he said it’s hard to pin the blame solely on organizers or the city when neither the federal government nor Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had issued guidance on such events.
“I see this as a political failure first, and probably more so at the level of the federal government,” he said.