WNFR, COVID style
Fans at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Arlington, Texas won’t be able to rub elbows with their favorite contestants.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PRCA will test all WNFR contestants and contract personnel for COVID upon arrival at Globe Life Field and randomly throughout the WNFR.
Contestants and contract personnel were also recommended to get a COVID-19 test prior to Nov. 20, and people are requested to bring their results with them when they check in at the WNFR.
Many contestants and contractors, which include everyone from stock contractors to pickup men, flank men, secretaries, and more, are planning on “bubbling” – staying with members of their own households, so as to not catch the virus and potentially be dismissed from the Finals.
It will also change the way the WNFR ancillary events will look. Very few, if any, autograph sessions will take place, and contestants and contractors are more likely to stay to themselves and not mingle with fans.
Steer wrestler Jacob Talley, the number two man in the world standings, since his COVID-19 test, has isolated with his family and with Justin Shaffer, who will haze for him at the Finals. He’s willing to “quarantine,” if it means not risking getting dismissed from the Finals.
Rodeo is his career, and whatever it takes to compete at the WNFR, he’s willing to do. “We’ve prepared for it, as a job,” the Keatchie, La. man said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do. We’ve given a lot to be there.”
Sparky Dreesen, Circle, Montana, will have eighteen horses and three bulls at the WNFR and he’ll be there to flank them. He got his COVID-19 test last week; the virus is making the rounds in his hometown, so he’s sending his hired help to fuel up the truck and make preparations for the trip to Arlington, Texas, so that he doesn’t get exposed to the virus.
If he gets dismissed due to a positive COVID-19 test, his son-in-law, Cullen Pickett, who owns Pickett Pro Rodeo, can flank his horses. But if they would both get sick, someone else who would not know their horses well would have to flank them.
“We’ve got a lot on the line,” Dreesen said.
He and his wife Marlene are planning on staying at daughter Mandy’s house, who is married to Cullen. Cullen and Mandy live about 110 miles from Arlington, near Fairfield. “We’re not going to stay at the hotel,” he said. “We’ll go back and forth.”
For Oklahoma barrel racer Emily Miller Beisel, the COVID-19 test required by the PRCA on short notice meant driving an hour and a half to Norman, Okla., from her home in Weatherford, Okla., because there were no tests available in western Oklahoma. She isn’t able to work out at the gym, either, due to isolating.
The WNFR, for her and husband Austin, will consist of three locations each day: the horse stall where her horses will be kept, Globe Life Field, and the hotel where she and Austin will stay. She can’t run the risk of getting infected and dismissed from the rodeo, which puts a lot of contestants’ finances in the “black” after a rodeo season that didn’t pay well due to fewer rodeos and more traveling to get to them.
Beisel, ranked twelfth in the world standings, has been told that the sixteenth and seventeenth ranked cowgirls, who didn’t make the cut for the WNFR, have been told to be on standby, in case someone gets dismissed.
The PRCA will pay for testing for contestants and contractors but not for companions, which includes hazers, horse handlers, and family. They can be tested but at the contestants’ expense. Beisel would love to include her parents as a companion, but that would require them to isolate as well.
Contestants get a complimentary ticket for a family member, but this year, those comp tickets will be seated separately from fans. Austin will sit in the designated area for companions, who have also been following guidelines, Beisel said.
Her parents, Tom and Margaret, have offered to run errands and bring meals to them. “Mom said, I’ll bring you Pappadeaux,” Beisel laughed. “She said, I’ll knock on the hotel door and set it outside.”
Last year was Beisel’s first year to qualify for the Finals, and she loved connecting with the fans in Las Vegas. “The little girls see the barrel racers they’ve always looked up to and they want to give you a hug, and mom and dad want to shake your hand. I thoroughly enjoyed that part of it (last year). But this year, it’s not even an option because a positive test means you’re going home.”
Beisel said the PRCA had said that more protocol information would be available after the Thanksgiving holiday. In an email sent to contestants and contractors, the PRCA made mention of a “new COVID-19 Pledge Acknowledgement”, stating that it “is required confirming your compliance with the revised PRCA and NFR COVID-19 Ground Rules.”
For many western companies, the WNFR is the ultimate way to reach western-minded crowds. Autograph signings by endorsees are common, but not this year.
Chance Schuknecht, sales and marketing manager for Silver Lining Herbs, said his company would not have endorsees making any appearances for them this year. “It’s definitely going to change the atmosphere,” of the WNFR, he said. “It’s too bad. But ultimately, I think it’s a good decision. COVID is real, and you can get sick from it. It’s ultimately the right decision, even though it’s not the most popular decision.”
Dreesen’s guess is that, if an outbreak among contestants and contractors would be bad enough, the WNFR might be closed to fans. If that happened, ticket buyers would probably have their money refunded, which would mean less payout for winners and for the help. He stressed that this was speculation, but it might happen.
“We want to be smart,” he said, of obliging by COVID-19 protocol. “It’s going to depend on everybody’s cooperation.