Billed as the state’s largest outdoor rodeo, the North Star Stampede draws thousands of fans for three days each summer to the tiny northern Minnesota town of Effie.
But this weekend, for the first time, cowboys could be saddling up to a largely empty grandstand after the Minnesota Department of Health and the state Attorney General’s Office, citing COVID-19 concerns, imposed a spectator limit at the event, which runs Friday through Sunday.
Or will they?
Spurred on by a Facebook post Wednesday from the event’s organizer, rodeo fans are planning to show up anyway to protest, asserting their constitutional right to peaceable assembly.
“The North Star Stampede will take place with no spectators,” wrote Cimarron Pitzen, whose family has staged the rodeo since 1955. “If people would like to come and protest against this ridiculous Government Over Reach, feel free to do so, I will not stand in the way of peoples ‘Right to Assemble.’ ”
Within hours of Pitzen’s post, rodeo fans rallied. “I guess if thousands can protest in downtown Minneapolis we can protest in a field!” wrote Mike Milkovich of Hibbing.
“Who says that you can’t be protesting while sitting in the stands … and a rodeo is just happening to be going on,” replied Janet Chartier Bailey of Andover.
Pitzen posted the invitation after he grew angry during a phone call Wednesday with a state official who told him he had to limit attendance at the rodeo to fewer than 150 spectators, based on an executive order by Gov. Tim Walz restricting large public gatherings during the pandemic.
Pitzen told Assistant Attorney General Jason Pleggenkuhle that he didn’t know how many people his 60,000-square-foot rodeo venue would seat. Pleggenkuhle replied that based on state guidelines, the venue’s maximum capacity would be 530 people. Walz’s order limits such events to 25% capacity, meaning the rodeo would be limited to 132 spectators.
“While we were discussing this occupant capacity limit and other requirements with you yesterday, you abruptly became angry, stated you would put the rodeo on without spectators present, and then hung up the phone,” Pleggenkuhle wrote in a letter sent to Pitzen on Thursday. “To the extent North Star Ranch does not comply and violates these requirements, the [Attorney General] reserves the right to bring an enforcement action.”
In a statement Thursday, Attorney General Keith Ellison said, “Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is everyone’s responsibility. My office is working successfully with businesses and events across Minnesota to help them operate responsibly and keep Minnesotans safe. We take that duty seriously.”
That said, there are no plans to prevent visitors from entering the rodeo grounds, according to an Itasca County Sheriff’s official.
“We’ll be up there patrolling … like we normally do,” said Chief Deputy Denise Hirt.“The Effie rodeo has over 300 acres of private property,” Hirt said. “We’re not gonna be stopping people from going on their property.”
If Ellison’s office goes to court for an order to stop the rodeo, “they can come up and serve it,” Hirt said.
The state Health Department also warned that it intends to enforce the order.
“We will always first seek to work with parties to help them come into compliance,” the department said in a statement Thursday, “but we owe it to all Minnesotans to not allow willful violators to disregard or endanger the health of their employees, neighbors and community members.”
Pitzen did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. Effie, a city of 118 residents in Itasca County, is about 225 miles north of the Twin Cities.
The pandemic rules have been hard on businesses and those who rely on large events for a living, especially in rural Minnesota, said Megan Christianson, executive director of Visit Grand Rapids, the area’s tourism promotion agency.
“It’s hard for some people in rural locations to accept this, because they don’t think their crowds are big crowds,” she said. “But it’s still thousands of people.”
Grand Rapids had to cancel its annual Weekend on Wheels event, a car show also set for this weekend. The show and the rodeo typically draw up to 40,000 people to the Grand Rapids area, along with 1,000 vendors, Christianson said.
“There are huge economic impacts to this,” she said. “But if everybody works together, we’ll get through this faster.”