The Calgary Stampede, and the exhibitions and fairs that preceded it, survived two world wars and the Great Depression.
Organizers managed to pull off the event in 2013, when a massive flood devastated much of the city’s downtown core, including the Stampede grounds, two weeks before the opening-day parade.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly strict prohibitions on mass gatherings and requirements for social distancing pose one of the greatest external obstacles the event has faced.
The Calgary Stampede is scrambling to figure out contingencies in case the event, which includes a rodeo, midway and exhibition that together attract more than 100,000 visitors a day, needs to be adjusted before it begins in the first week of July.
However, any level of social-distancing measures, if they are still in place by the summer, would likely mean that none of it – not the midway, not the rodeo and not the pancake breakfasts that bring large crowds of families to mall parking lots across the city – would be feasible.
“We’re assessing what could be possible or not possible with respect to all of our programming in the coming months, given that the full impact of COVID-19 on the community remains uncertain,” Warren Connell, the CEO of the Calgary Stampede, said in an interview.
“With any social-distancing requirements, it just really wouldn’t be responsible or possible for us to host a Stampede.”
The rodeo alone, for example, requires about 1,000 people to stage, not even counting the spectators in the grandstand. There would be no way to do that while keeping people at a distance.
Mr. Connell said it’s too soon to speculate what might happen or even provide a timeline for when the Stampede would need to make a decision. He said the Stampede supports government efforts to slow the pandemic through social-distancing measures and will follow the direction of public-health officials.
Calgary is not alone. Organizers of large fairs and exhibitions across the country are nervously watching the pandemic and wondering what, if anything, they will be able to salvage.
Some events, such as the Pacific National Exhibition Fair in Vancouver and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, which both start in late August, have extra breathing room to wait if life returns to normal by then.
Others, such as the Manitoba Summer Fair in Brandon, which is scheduled to begin in a little more than two months, will need to make a call soon. The Haliburton County Fair in Minden, Ont., and the Brooklin Spring Fair in Brooklin, Ont., both scheduled for June, have already cancelled.
The Calgary Stampede holds 1,200 events on the grounds every year. Some of those events, such as the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in April, have already been cancelled and the Stampede recently laid off 80 per cent of its staff.
Mr. Connell said simply delaying the Stampede until later in the year may not be feasible, either. The Stampede is part of a continent-wide circuit of fairs and festivals that depends on trucks full of rides, midway games and food vendors criss-crossing Canada and the United States – serving events that are all making the same calculations as organizers in Calgary.
“Everybody’s sitting here waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he said.
The Calgary Stampede gets its midway and amusement-park rides from North American Midway Entertainment, the U.S. company that also serves the PNE, CNE and other major fairs in Canada. North American Midway owns what was once Ontario-based Conklin Shows.
Vice-president Scooter Korek said the company has already seen disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Miami Dade County Fair in Florida was scheduled to open on March 12 but was scrapped at the last minute as the county government banned large events.
Mr. Korek said the company is optimistic many of its events this summer will go ahead as planned. He said the company could mobilize quickly – with as little as a week’s notice – if fair organizers are forced to make last-minute decisions
“We’re planning to come to Canada and keep doing what we do, even if there were just two or three events in Canada that are able to operate,” he said.
“We’re playing this as we go along. We’re going to attend the events that we’ve committed to come to.”
The non-profit organizing committees and agricultural societies that put on many of Canada’s largest fairs is warning that the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic could have long-term financial consequences for the events.
The Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions has called for the federal government to help the industry, such as through grants or other kinds of financing.
The association’s executive director, Christina Franc, said governments need to recognize that fairs and exhibitions provide a significant economic benefits to their local communities.
“We’re a seasonal business,” she said. “If this goes on for months and months, there’s no chance of recovery.”
A statement from Heritage Canada said the department will continue issuing grants for cultural and sports events, including to help cover the costs associated with pandemic-related cancellations.
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