The Teton County Board of Health made a tough decision on June 15, 2020, not to allow the 75th annual Choteau American Legion Rodeo, a Northern Rodeo Association-sanctioned event. The 4th of July rodeo typically brings 3,000 or so fans to town to watch Jacobs Livestock’s rough stock and roping stock do their best to stymie cowboys and cowgirls. The rodeo is a staple of Choteau’s 4th of July bash and is the Legion’s biggest fundraiser. Further, the rodeo benefits different civic organizations that are paid to help with the event including the high school wrestling club, the swim team, 4-H and the Choteau volunteer firefighters. Taking this event away will have economic impacts on many in the Choteau community and will hurt the Legion’s ability to give back to the community through donations to charitable organizations.
The seven-member board is required under state law to administer the governor’s health directives in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under these directives, at this time, any event with more than 50 people is required to submit a written COVID-19 plan to the board and to seek permission from the board to hold the event. The Board of Health in this case voted unanimously not to allow the rodeo with two members abstaining. County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss did not vote because his son, Levi, is a member of the Sons of the American Legion and serves on the Legion Rodeo Committee. Ken Bassmann of rural Choteau, an emergency medical technician, did not vote because he is a member of the Legion. The remaining board members, Tim Sinton, a physician assistant, nurses Elaine Sedlack, Lin Wright and Barb Shafer, and Choteau construction contractor Randy Morris all voted against allowing the rodeo.
The Board of Health members are appointed by the county commissioners. In normal times, they meet quarterly, providing oversight and feedback to the Teton County Health Department’s public health functions. They are members of the Teton County community who serve voluntarily on this board because they want to make sure that public health matters in Teton County are attended to whether that’s immunization, services to low-income women and children, chronic disease prevention programs, disease outbreaks (like whooping cough or influenza) or planning for public health disasters. No one on this board is serving for glory or money or power. These four men and three women all support the communities in Teton County. They want to see businesses succeed and have no desire to hurt any individuals or groups or the local economy.
In a statement that seemed to summarize the board’s thoughts, Shafer said during the June 15 meeting that the Legion is important to her. Her husband and her sons have or are serving in the U.S. military. For her, she said, this decision wasn’t about politics either. It was not a decision based on Republican or Democratic philosophies. The decision for her, she said, was based on what would be best for the health of the residents of Teton County, particularly the most vulnerable — the elderly and those with chronic underlying medical conditions.
In making its decision, the board looked at the COVID-19 risk mitigation plan the Legion presented at the meeting (though the board had this document several days before the meeting and members had studied it already). The plan had many good safeguards, but Legion Cmdr. Jerry Collins said the organization could not keep track of where people were sitting in the general admission portion of the arena (outside the covered grandstands). Because these seats are not marked with numbers, the Legion would not be able to identify where an ill person with a general admission ticket was sitting. This would mean that to do contact tracing, the Health Department with its small staff would have to contact up to 3,000 people in about 48 hours to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Board of Health members acknowledged that the county (which has had no confirmed cases as of Monday, June 22), will see out-of-state visitors this summer as people travel to Glacier National Park and some of those people will stop here for food and fuel. That is a risk out of the board’s control, but the board reasoned it can reduce the risk of having up to 3,000 people come together on one day in one place.
The Board of Health has shown its willingness to work with community organizations to approve events that don’t pose significant risk. The board has approved a high school rodeo, a steer show and the Teton County 4-H fair (all without spectators) and a meet and greet rodeo mixer for the Legion on July 3. But in this case, with so many spectators and no real way to control their behavior, the board determined that the risk outweighed the benefit. None of the board members were happy to make this decision, but they put the health of this community as their priority, knowing that their decision would likely subject them to criticism and vitriol. The worst-case scenario for the rodeo was that it created a COVID-19 outbreak in Teton County and put Choteau on the map in a very negative way. The board acted to reduce the risk that COVID-19 will become active here and kill people. The board made the right decision. The Legion can bring the rodeo back in 2021, bigger and better than ever. No one can bring back the lives lost to COVID-19.