Calgary

Calgary Stampede preps to close the gates on last day of pandemic-era edition

It was a Calgary Stampede like no other, one organizers surely hope never to replicate again — complete with concession booths, fireworks and rodeo, but also sanitation stations, enhanced cleaning and COVID-19 rapid tests.

Organizers say attendance was about half of a typical Stampede this year

Spending was up at hotels and restaurants in Calgary during the Stampede July 9-18, a trend mirrored across the province. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It was a Calgary Stampede like no other, one organizers surely hope never to replicate again — complete with concession booths, fireworks and rodeo, but also sanitation stations, enhanced cleaning and COVID-19 rapid tests.

After 10 days, the COVID-19 edition of the self-styled Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth concludes Sunday night. The worldwide pandemic cancelled the world-famous outdoor festival for the first time in a century last year.

That cancellation saw the festival lose an unprecedented $26.5 million in 2020 — a far cry from the roughly $150 million in annual revenues usually pulled in by the event.

Organizers said they were confident that new safety measures adopted by the festival — like cutting daily attendance in half, implementing enhanced cleaning and introducing public sanitation stations — would essentially see the Stampede function like a blueprint for other mass gathering events scheduled this year across Canada.

Such an event, paired with the province lifting almost all of its public health restrictions a little more than two weeks ago, has raised consternation among some infectious disease experts, who worry about the potential for an uptick in COVID-19 cases driven by the more infectious delta variant.

Organizers highlighted early numbers emerging out of the event during a press conference held Sunday — attendance was about half of a typical Calgary Stampede, organizers reported, with around 50,000 attendees a day, most of whom were from Calgary.

By contrast, the most recent regular editions of the festival brought 1,275,465 visitors in 2019 and 1,271,241 in 2018. The 2019 edition was the second-highest attended Calgary Stampede after 2012, which was the year the Stampede celebrated its 100th year.

A visitor to Nashville North has a rapid COVID-19 test at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary on July 9. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nashville North — the popular 18-plus, live country music venue — saw 60,000 visitors enter the tent, 73 per cent of whom showed vaccination proof. 

Under modified rules, patrons had to show proof of at least one COVID-19 shot two weeks prior, or agree to have a negative rapid test result at the entrance to the grounds or the door of the tent.

Organizers said fewer than 18 COVID-19 cases were caught at the doors.

Stampede president Steve McDonough said the 2021 edition of the festival had been a "wild ride" — contending that the festival represented a safe return to live events that should serve as a model for Calgary, and Canada.

"Success is also the local businesses getting a much-needed boost, and our economy a kickstart," McDonough said.

"No matter how you measure it, Stampede 2021 is a success."

Wildfire smoke affects final day

The festival opened its doors free of charge to all Calgarians for its final day, with gates opening at 10 a.m. Sunday and running until midnight.

But the offer coincided with heavy, thick smoke wafting in from British Columbia — smoke that led to Environment Canada issuing a special air quality statement Sunday morning. The air quality health index was sitting at 10+, or very high risk, as of 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

That risk meant that people with lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD, generally experience more serious health effects at lower levels of pollution, as it can aggravate their diseases.

Smoke blanketed the Calgary Stampede grounds, much as it did all of the province of Alberta on Sunday, as heavy wildfire smoke blew into Calgary from British Columbia. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

According to the weather agency, that may lead to increased medication use, doctor and emergency room visits, and hospital visits.

The Calgary Stampede said its rodeo would go ahead on Sunday, writing in a statement that its on-site team of veterinarians were monitoring animals for signs of increased respiratory effort.

The World Professional Chuckwagon Association and the Century Downs Racetrack in Calgary both said they had cancelled their scheduled horse-racing events on Sunday, citing concerns surrounding the safety of the animals and the humans involved.

With files from Helen Pike

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