States Crack Down on Large Gatherings as Covid-19 Continues to Spread

In this Aug. 5, 2015, file photo, motorcycles stretch down Main Street in Sturgis, S.D., for the landmark Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. About 250,000 people are expected for this year's event, which is proceeding despite local concerns about Covid-19.

In this Aug. 5, 2015, file photo, motorcycles stretch down Main Street in Sturgis, S.D., for the landmark Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. About 250,000 people are expected for this year's event, which is proceeding despite local concerns about Covid-19. Associated Press

 

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Minnesota officials are seeking damages from a ranch owner who held a three-day rodeo in defiance of state regulations on large gatherings. They say at least one attendee tested positive for Covid-19 days after the event.

Officials in Minnesota last week filed a complaint against the organizers of a three-day rodeo for promoting and holding the event in violation of an executive order that limits the size of public gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. It’s the first time the state has taken action “against an entertainment venue that has operated in open defiance of the law,” Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement.

“Business owners and event operators need to know that they are not above the law,” he said. “If they risk the health and safety of our communities, my office will take strong action, as we are doing today.” 

The complaint, filed Friday in Itasca County District Court, alleges that Cimarron Pitzen, owner of the North Star Ranch, fought with state officials who told him he would have to limit attendance at the annual Stampede Rodeo, promoted as the largest outdoor rodeo in Minnesota. 

“Mr. Pitzen grew angry, began shouting obscenities, stated he would put North Star Ranch’s rodeo on without any spectators, and then hung up the phone,” the complaint says. 

Later that day, Pitzen posted on the event’s public Facebook page that the rodeo would take place with no spectators, but that people were free to come and protest against “this ridiculous Government Over Reach.”

“I will not stand in the way of people's ‘Right to Assemble,’” he concluded.

Pitzen could not be reached for comment Monday.

State officials tried several more times to contact Pitzen but were unable to reach him. The three-day event kicked off as planned on July 24, with no Covid-19 testing protocols in place, no advance reservations, no social-distancing guidelines and no requirement that attendees wear face coverings, the complaint says.

Pitzen had been advised that the event should be limited to no more than 132 spectators. Instead, thousands of people attended, according to news reports cited by the attorney general’s office. The rodeo participants alone, the complaint alleges, “came from seven different states...as well as 44 different Minnesota counties, including Covid-19 hotspots such as Stearns and Hennepin counties, which have experienced thousands of positive Covid-19 cases.”

At least one attendee tested positive for Covid-19 in the days following the rodeo, according to the Itasca County Health Department. The timing of the infection suggests that the person was contagious while at the event, Jan Malcolm, Minnesota’s health commissioner, said in a statement.

“If you attended this event, you should consider yourself potentially exposed,” she said. “That means you should be watching for symptoms and if you do develop symptoms, seek health care and get tested. In the meantime, please limit your public interactions and activities for 14 days, practice social distancing and wear a mask during all interaction with others.”

Ellison’s office is seeking civil penalties of up to $25,000 for every violation listed in the complaint. Pitzen could also be forced to repay any money he made from the event as well as reimburse the state for office and attorney fees.

Other states are also seeking to crack down on large gatherings as coronavirus cases continue to trend upward. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters on Friday that he would further restrict the number of people allowed to attend private social gatherings if the state’s case numbers didn’t improve. Officials there are investigating at least eight new clusters of the virus, he said, many of them linked to large gatherings with dozens of people in attendance, including a 90-person prom party.

Baker’s executive order limits indoor gatherings to 25 people, and allows 100 people to attend gatherings in enclosed, outdoor areas.

But large gatherings in other places are proceeding as planned. Utah’s Washington County Fair, a four-day event that typically draws around 50,000 people, starts Tuesday. Organizers have taken “extra precautions,” including additional hand-washing stations and hand-sanitizer dispensers, one-way entrances and exits and dedicated hours for senior citizens, according to the event’s website. 

Masks are not required, though organizers “strongly encourage” people to stay home if they feel sick.

The fair is permitted under current state regulations, which allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 6,000 people. It’s unclear how fair organizers intend to enforce that limit.

And in South Dakota, more than 250,000 people are expected to attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a nine-day event that kicks off Friday. The event, expected to be the biggest in the country during the pandemic, will continue despite the results of a survey that showed that 60% of the city’s 7,000 residents would prefer that it be postponed, the Associated Press reported.

“This is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year,” Lynelle Chapman, a Sturgis resident, told city counselors at a June meeting. “The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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