RodeoHouston has been cancelled due to concerns over the coronavirus, and both the City of Houston and Harris County are planning on issuing disaster declarations shortly.
“This has not come easily, but after conferring and talking with the stakeholders … we are all in agreement,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a press conference held at City Hall on Wednesday. “It is a decision being made with the health and safety in our region as our priority.”
The annual event began on March 3 and was slated to run through March 22. Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo representatives and Houston City Hall officials met on Wednesday morning and agreed that the remainder of the annual rodeo, an event which attracts thousands of visitors daily throughout its weeks-long run, will not be held.
This development is undeniably prudent from a public safety standpoint—large crowds are the perfect situation for spreading this disease—although in the short term, it is going to mean the loss of a substantial amount of revenue. The rodeo has only been cancelled once in its decades-long history, back in 1937 when the event was not held because the Sam Houston Coliseum was still under construction.
Previously, rodeo officials nixed cancelling the rodeo, contending that it was a "local event" that would not be drawing international visitors the way the annual CERA conference or Austin's South By Southwest would have. But that changed on Tuesday. Turner explained that the decision came after he and other officials learned that the first non-travel related case had been confirmed in Montgomery County, making it official that we now are seeing community transmission of the disease.
“We’ve previously said that when we are confronted with the facts, the medical advice and the science we would not hesitate to act,” Turner said, going on to announce that he will be signing a declaration of a public health disaster later today, which will then be sent to the City Council for re-approval after seven days. The city is also rescheduling or cancelling all city-related or city-sponsored events for the month of March, including community meetings and upcoming events like Tour de Houston. "This decision does not come easily," Turner said, "but the health and safety of the people in our region is paramount."
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that she will be signing a disaster declaration for Harris County later today as well, and then warned that the coming days are likely to see more cases developing as this unfolds. Hidalgo urged people to be calm, especially since as testing begins to increase we are likely to see an increase in cases.
"We’re doing this in order to save lives," Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department said. "This is a very big step the Mayor and County Judge are taking, but we’re doing it to save lives. If we are successful … if we do this together we may be able to slow this in our community." Not taking these measures, he stated, will lead to a situation where everyone is getting sick at once and overwhelming the hospital system here, the way the disease played out in Wuhan. "What we’re trying to do with these very aggressive and painful decisions is to slow down the spread of this," he said. "That's not what they did in Wuhan."
"As heartbreaking as this is for our millions of fans, our 30,000 volunteers and our contestants, as hard as this is to do, this is the right thing to do," Joel Cowley, president and CEO of Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. He noted that the rodeo will begin winding down immediately, and all who are currently on the grounds have until 4 p.m. to depart. He said that information about refunds will be offered on the RodeoHouston website. Meanwhile, scholarships will be given out as planned—an announcement that was met with applause.
The city is not shutting down though, Turner noted, and city employees are still expected to be in the office. Right now, the plan is to be smart and proactive about this. “I do want to emphasize that this is not a time to panic or be fearful. Yes, you can go to the grocery store and get the soap, the hand sanitizer, all of that,” Turner stated. “But the toilet paper? Frankly, I don’t get that.”
Persse also urged people to be sensible, whether they are having symptoms or are not. “We are increasing our ability to test … but an important thing for people to understand is that if you are not having symptoms you do not need to be tested,” Persse said. "Getting tested before you have symptoms does you no good, because the test is likely to come back negative which just wastes a test." He also advised anyone who thinks they have symptoms to call ahead and warn healthcare providers of this so that medical staff can prepare and minimize their exposure to the disease.
So far, 14 people have either tested positive or are presumed positive for COVID-19 in the Houston area. For more news updates, check out our Coronavirus coverage.