BIGFORK — Rodeos are a summertime staple in Montana. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, rodeos across the state and the country have been few and far between.
However, thanks to a lot of community support and work with local health officials, the Bigfork Summer Pro Rodeo, which is entering its third year of existence, will be ready to go over the Fourth of July weekend.
“We waited until the last minute to really make the call," director of operations Rob Brisendine said. "We just waited to see how things were going to unfold in the county and in the state, and as things started to open back up we started working with the PRCA and they really gave us the green light to be able to put this on.
"(The PRCA) put out some very strict guidelines about what we need to follow for this rodeo and we were able to accomplish that through local health officials and public safety officers to be able to accommodate the requirements."
A younger event in the PRCA scene, the rodeo will be held July 4-6. Brisendine said it will be the largest cowboy entry pool the rodeo has had so far with almost 500 contestants already signed up.
One reason for that larger cowboy pool is because other states around Montana where rodeo is popular have seen most of their events canceled.
"We're really garnering a huge entry pool from across the country," Brisendine said. "This is their way of life, this is their living. So we need to help them continue to have a way of life and we're excited to be able to do that."
After buying bleachers from the now-closed Montana Raceway Park in Kalispell, the rodeo can now seat 4,500 people, or quadruple the previous capacity limit. They will limit capacity below 2,000, though an official number has not been set, and the new bleachers should amply spread people out to comply with social distancing at the Bigfork Rodeo Grounds.
With all of those new bleachers and space, Brisendine said the rodeo is confident it can spread that number of people out in accordance with those guidelines.
"It's an outdoor venue, so we're really confident we can deliver this event safely," he said.
Many other guidelines are put in place. as well, which include health screenings at all contestant entry gates with temperatures taken, doubled capacity to allow for social distancing, multiple hand-washing stations throughout the spectator area and sanitation stations throughout the entire facility.
Employees will disinfect the spectator area before and after each performance as well as each contestant area. Masks and gloves are "highly recommended" and some will be available on site.
All vendors are required to follow Flathead County Health Department and Montana state guidelines. Those who are sick or have health issues are encouraged to stay home as well as those who feel uncomfortable attending or are high-risk.
“Our messaging to the people is, really, that if you feel uncomfortable or you’re high-risk, this year is not the year to come," Brisendine said. "This year is the year to sit this one out.”
Those guidelines will be coupled with the ground rules and safety guidelines provided by the PRCA.
Tickets were held off for sale for about four months as rodeo officials waited. But once the state began reopening, the rodeo began moving forward with backing from local officials and the PRCA.
In 2019 the Bigfork rodeo was named Montana's small rodeo of the year. Gates open an hour-and-a-half prior to start time each day. More information on the rodeo can be found here.
Brisendine said the community support has been through the roof, and without it this year’s event wouldn’t be possible. Brisendine said the rodeo's sponsorship is up about 25 percent from years prior from local community sponsors.
“I think it’s so special, really, to see the community get behind this event," Brisendine said. "Knowing the support is there, knowing that we have the safety protocols in place to be able to put this rodeo on, making it the safest rodeo in the state right now is really our goal. We’re just super excited to be able to bring this to the community.
"It’s going to be a great three days of rodeo.”