This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
Days before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off, area politicians celebrated this great piece of Americana — dubbed the world’s largest livestock show — which was going forward in the age of the coronavirus.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 29-year-old rising political star, posted on Facebook on Feb. 28 how “pumped” she was for rodeo season, sharing a list of her favorite songs. “Look forward to seeing y’all there! #RodeoHouston.”
She also reassured residents that “the overall risk of COVID-19 to the general public within our counties remains low at this time.”
Not to be outdone, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner donned a black suit and cowboy hat and posted a video of himself line dancing to the “wobble.”
But over at the Rodeo Houston headquarters, organizers worried that the 20-day event would have to be shut down early as they watched a global increase in coronavirus cases. While COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, had not been confirmed in Houston at that point, they knew it was a matter of time.
“Do we really think the rodeo will be shut down?” they asked Dr. Kelly Larkin, an ER physician and longtime board member of the rodeo.
Yes, she said.
Enough evidence existed that “something was probably going to develop during that time period. We just didn’t know how or when,” she told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
A review by the news organizations of thousands of emails, social media posts, press releases, and public comments by civic and municipal leaders, along with interviews, shows that government leaders, health officials and rodeo organizers knew that once the novel coronavirus was detected here, they would have to shut down the rodeo. Many in the community were urging organizers and city leaders to cancel the event.
“It is my belief that you should use your authority to basically shut down the Houston Rodeo or at least those components of it that will take place in a closed arena,” attorney Seth Chandler, the former director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, wrote to Dr. David Persse, the head of the city’s health department, before opening day.
Chandler, who had worked with Persse on seminars involving the Zika virus, added, “I know full well the Rodeo is hardly the only potential source of spread in Texas. But it strikes me as the most serious threat. We can, of course, wait until we have confirmed cases, and doing so might make a closure more politically palatable. But by the time we discover a confirmed case, there are likely 50 circulating in the community ... .”
Organizers and other key leaders shared few of these concerns with the public and instead remained on message: COVID-19 was not a local threat, and the 20-day rodeo would go on.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the city’s largest annual event, attracting 2.5 million people and generating nearly $400 million in economic activity for the region. Thousands of kids spend their entire year preparing for the livestock show.
Ultimately, on March 11, after eight days, the rodeo shut down. A police officer from a neighboring county who attended a pre-rodeo barbecue tested positive for the new coronavirus — evidence that it was now spreading in the community. The health department is now confident the officer caught the virus at the rodeo.
So far, at least 18 people who attended the rodeo and live in four counties surrounding Houston have tested positive for the coronavirus, though it is unclear if they all contracted it at the event. The city of Houston, which reports its cases separately, did not provide ProPublica and the Tribune with its updated figure, saying it is busy responding to COVID-19.
The actual number of people with ties to the rodeo who were infected may never be known. While testing remains problematic across the United States, Texas ranks among the worst in the country.
Persse, who also serves as medical director for the rodeo’s safety committee, said no one wanted to make a rushed decision, fearing they would lose the public’s confidence. At the end of day, he said, “the community has got to believe we have their overall interest at heart.”
Claus Wilke, a University of Texas at Austin biologist who studies the evolution of viruses, believes the rodeo should have closed earlier, although he said it’s hard to pin the blame solely on organizers or the city when neither the federal government nor Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had issued guidance on such events.
“I see this as a political failure first, and probably more so at the level of the federal government,” he said.
“By early March, it was already out of control in Italy. At that point, we should have been fully aware of what was happening,” he said. “For a disease spreading widely, all it takes is one person who drives a car from an area where it has been circulating to an area where it hasn’t, and there you have it.”
The country’s fourth-largest city was not the only one to grapple with decisions about what to do regarding thousands of events — big and small — iconic to their communities and, at times, huge economic drivers. In Seattle, its beloved soccer team, the Sounders, played before a crowd of 33,000 fans despite recommendations from health officials that large events be canceled, ProPublica and the Seattle Times reported.
In the coming weeks and months, states and cities across the country will have to decide when to allow large gatherings again and may encounter the very struggles that Seattle and Houston leaders have faced: protecting the public while igniting economic growth, providing transparency while not creating fear.
Rodeo organizers brace for the worst: a cancellation
Here is the backstory on how local leaders tried in vain to pull off the rodeo, a signature Texas event held nearly every year since 1932 — with the exception of 1937 due to a fire.
Rodeo organizers and city health department officials had tracked the spread of the coronavirus since January and more closely as opening day approached, knowing it would impact the efforts of 35,000 volunteers, 135 full-time staff members, and the millions of dollars in educational grants and scholarships given to participants.
In his weekly update to the mayor Feb. 27, Persse wrote about community spread in California and Washington state. “As predicted, the U.S. strategy of ‘containment’ appears to begin to fail. We should expect to have community spread in Texas shortly.”
Larkin and the rodeo executive leadership were meeting daily. They were carefully watching the spread, monitoring suspected cases, discussing the delays in getting local test results, just flat-out hoping they could keep the rodeo open for yet another day.
“We were watching what was happening in other parts of the world, and we knew that it was happening here,” said Larkin.
Warning signs were everywhere
The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had declared the novel coronavirus a public health emergency by the end of January.
Federal officials warned it would likely spread in the United States. “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Feb. 25.
Rodeo organizers were getting multiple calls from people concerned about the event taking place and asking what they were doing to prevent an outbreak. Lisa Gagnon, the rodeo’s executive director of marketing, asked the city for help. “With the Rodeo starting on Tuesday, we welcome any feedback, advice or collaboration,” she wrote March 1.
The rodeo nearly doubled the number of hand sanitizer stations and posted signs throughout the grounds reminding people to properly wash their hands. It added a health tips sheet on its website with CDC guidelines and advised people who felt sick to stay home.
“This is a difficult situation,” Persse wrote in an email to Gagnon. “There are NO cases in SE Texas as yet. Many expect that there will be, we just do not know when or whom.”
But he warned there would “inevitably be the criticism that those gatherings should have been closed/canceled” if there’s later a case of a person who attended one of them.
“Yet, today we have no reason to do so, other than to stimulate even more unnecessary fear,” Persse added. “We need to anticipate that and give people the best guidance we can in an environment where [we] do not necessarily have all of the facts. As of today, there is no reason not to go to the Rodeo. I for one am very much looking forward to seeing Willie Nelson, never seen him before! Wish I had better news to share.”
The case count begins
In his email to Persse, the Houston health director, Chandler said he calculated that at least 10 people in the Houston area could have contracted the virus and, in a closed space like the rodeo, the possibility existed for the virus “spiraling out of control.”
By March 3, the day the rodeo opened, there were more than 90,000 cases confirmed globally and about 70 in the United States. Places such as Washington state and New York were becoming hot spots.
Then, there was the first local case.
On March 4, a man in his 70s who lives in neighboring Fort Bend County became the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case after returning from a river cruise in Egypt.
As the rodeo went on, more emails from constituents asked the mayor to consider closing it.
“No confirmed cases today DOES NOT mean there isn't any case in Houston, as many patients don't have symptoms but can spread the disease,” a March 4 email said.
Two days later, there were six more cases.
All were related to the same Nile River cruise — not evidence of community spread.
Nearly 500,000 people had already attended the barbecue cook-off and rodeo.
“Every day was like holding your breath,” Larkin said.
With every negative test, the rodeo lived for another day.
But the threat of the virus kept getting closer.
“The reality is there were people saying, including public health officials, you don't have to cancel events or close schools until you have community transmission, but that was flawed advice,” said Ellen Carlin, an assistant professor in the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University. “From a health perspective, it's very risky.”
Across the state, as of Sunday, there were nearly 19,000 cases of COVID-19 reported, with 4,600 in Harris County — more than twice as many as the next county. Given low testing rates, UT Austin researchers assume that one in 10 cases is tested and reported.
On March 6, Austin Mayor Steve Adler canceled South by Southwest, an annual arts and technology festival scheduled for March 13-22 that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from more than 100 countries each year.
Pressure to shut the rodeo intensified, but rodeo and government leaders insisted the event was different.
“The Rodeo is predominantly a local event, with 73% of the 2019 Rodeo visitors residing in the greater Houston area, 94% in Texas, and 99% in the U.S.,” rodeo organizers said in a statement. “In contrast, 26% of the 2019 SXSW attendees were international.”
Persse remained confident that they had stopped the spread of the coronavirus from that Egyptian cruise in time. Still, on March 7, his office began drafting news releases and key messages in the event of community spread.
Cases add up and pressure intensifies on the rodeo
More COVID-19 cases became public. When a New York woman who attended the rodeo March 8 tested positive, the Houston Health Department said that “she was not symptomatic during the Rodeo visit and there is a low risk to attendees."
However, there had already been reports from China and Europe of patients who tested positive despite having no symptoms or very mild ones, and epidemiologists were warning that such patients could infect others before they realized they were sick with COVID-19. The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days.
By March 9, the Houston area had 12 confirmed cases, all still tied to the cruise.
Another case came the following day.
A young woman tested positive. She had been studying abroad and flew back to Houston from Italy feeling ill.
Some 786,000 people had already attended the rodeo.
Then came the call.
The rodeo must shut down
“We have a patient who was a community-acquired case who was hospitalized,” Persse told Larkin.
It was about 9:30 p.m. March 10. The K-pop boy band NCT 127 was playing in the NRG Stadium.
“Darn,” Larkin recalled responding, “It was a ‘wow’ kind of moment.”
That’s all she needed to know.
By then, more than 850,000 had attended the rodeo. An additional 1 million attendees were expected over the next 12 days.
She got on the phone with rodeo president Joel Cowley.
Hours before the city held a press conference to announce the cancellation, Larkin and Cowley gathered staff to explain why one case had changed everything.
“When there’s a community-acquired patient where you don’t know where they got it from, it means they got it from someone who is out there who doesn’t know they have it, and they are just out there going to the grocery store, going to school, pumping gas,” Larkin said.
Teachers, vendors and parents — some crying — called the city to plead that the rodeo stay open. They couldn’t bear the thought of the students not being able to show their animals and the economic loss.
On the rodeo’s last day, over 2,000 youth from across the state had checked in to show their lambs and goats. An additional 2,600 unloaded their heifers for what was supposed to be a multiday event.
Everyone got in for free.
Then, by 4 p.m., they all had to be off the premises.
Based on when the police officer started showing symptoms, Persse said he is confident the officer, who is in his 40s, caught the virus at the rodeo. Before the barbecue cook-off, he had been working security near a construction site, Persse said, which doesn’t involve a lot of human-to-human contact.
“Which means somebody else brought it in and if they infected him, how many people at the rodeo did they infect?” he asked. “That’s always been my position, and that’s why we immediately moved to shut down the rodeo.”
During the announcement of the cancellation at City Hall on March 11, Turner said he had no regrets allowing the rodeo to go on. “We’re basing the decision based on the science and the medical advice and the facts that are presented.”
Turner did not respond to an interview request. His spokespeople referred ProPublica and the Tribune to the March press conference.
While people in his line of work knew it was not a question of “if” but “when,” Persse said, “from the standpoint of community leaders, shutting down rodeos and airports and doing all those sorts of things before you have evidence of spread, that’s just completely counterintuitive to them.”
But Persse said he’s pleased that elected leaders responded once there was clear evidence of a community spread.
“For some time, and especially this weekend, it became very evident that we were facing limitations in our testing capability,” Hidalgo said at the press conference March 11. “Over the last couple of days, it’s become clear that may give us, in a sense, an undercount.”
Although Wilke, the UT Austin biologist, advocated for canceling large gatherings early on, he said he also understands the difficulty of making those decisions.
“Think of an earthquake, it happens, everybody can see it, can deal with it. With a pandemic, you have to make decisions when it feels too early,” he said.
At no point did rodeo organizers feel they were doing something incredibly risky, Cowley said during an interview.
“You can hindsight it to death and say we should have closed earlier,” he said. “We felt we were discussing this with experts, the experts were basing their opinions on science and facts, and we were still conducting our events being hyper-vigilant about hygiene.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin; the University of Houston; Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman; and SXSW have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.