No where in the state of Wisconsin has a gathering of this size been approved. I’m talking about the annual Hodag Country Festival in Rhinelander, set for July 9-12. With events nationwide falling to the COVID-19 pandemic this will be a test on a number of levels.
First, the virus hasn’t taken root in the North. Certainly there are active cases but a city block in Milwaukee has more than 10 counties up here. With the Memorial Day weekend behind us, we’ve witnessed the lack of masks, virtually no social distancing and, “business as usual” in many location. Time will tell how that’s working out.
Now, comes a decision from the Oneida County Public Safety Committee to approve the permit for the festival, which I deeply enjoy, and the tens of thousands of people it brings in from across the Midwest. This is the 43rd year of the event, this time bringing the likes of Darius Rucker, Brett Eldredge, Eli Young Band, Trace Adkins, Travis Tritt and many more to the stage.
The committee wrestled with numerous questions how an event of this size could be pulled off safely. The family organizing the event submitted a 25-point plan to do just that, taking every precaution they could think of including cutting the attendance numbers and pushing back the opening date of the grounds. The full list is on this site.
The ‘Fest offered up this statement:
“Great News! We have been granted our permit to hold this year’s Hodag Country Festival by Oneida County. We’d like to thank the many local businesses and individuals who have provided their continued support to make this happen, as well as everyone involved in making this a positive decision for the community.
There will be more details in the near future regarding changes implemented relative to COVID-19 safety. We understand that not everyone feels comfortable with the decision for us to move forward. We will be offering refunds or rollovers to Hodag 2021. The decision is yours. However, we will need that decision by June 12, 2020. We will be posting and emailing directions in the next few days on how to inform us of your decision.
This year’s Hodag will be different; we will, to the best of our ability, demonstrate that events can be safely held when everyone works together. We are asking for your patience as there is no playbook. We realize there may be more challenges yet to come and adjustments may need to be made as the situation changes daily.
The immediate reaction took down the Hodag website. Thousands of people emailed or texted us and their feelings came down on both sides of the aisle. There are those ready to party and those deeply disappointed it’s going to happen. The committee’s decision set aside dozens of negative comments made at their meeting and 2/3rds of the emails received prior to it, critical of approving the permit. In the end, on a 4-1 vote, with an amendment made on the conditions mentioned earlier, it passed. County Board Supervisor Billy Fried was the lone dissenting vote and even floated an earlier motion to deny the permit but it died for lack of a second.
At issue, the health of the Northwoods economy versus the health of its people. Critics immediately said the latter cannot be protected, even if people do not attend. “The virus won’t stay on the grounds”, wrote one person.
This is an event a lot of eyes will be on, from the execution to the follow up. As the official station of the annual Hodag, we’ll be making big changes in the way we approach it and you’ll be learning about those in the coming weeks.
We’re all in uncharted waters here and it’s not a “give in or give up” scenario. My computer’s been dinging all the while I type this with people still expressing strong opinions. I’m not qualified to determine what’s right or wrong here…or even if there IS a right or wrong. I hope and pray all goes well and that life will continue with whatever normal will look like moving forward.