COVID-19: Events sector keeps eye on Calgary Stampede to see if mass gatherings can be held safely

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about the 2021 Calgary Stampede.

The Calgary Stampede officially got underway on Friday and became the first legal mass gathering of people in Alberta since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the province nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

The event’s organizers say while they are excited about it, the 10-day event will be a scaled-down version of past Stampedes. Some areas on the Stampede grounds are restricting entry to visitors who can prove they have been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19 or are willing to take a rapid COVID-19 test.

READ MORE: Calgary Stampede hiring for scaled-back event 

Despite the precautions, some medical experts have raised questions about whether it is wise to hold massive events at this stage of the pandemic, especially when only about half the province’s population has been fully vaccinated against the disease. Citing health and safety concerns, some prominent sponsors have publicly distanced themselves from this year’s Stampede, although they have maintained their financial support for it.

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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has said in the past that she does not believe the Stampede will pose a significant risk to the health-care system.

READ MORE: Calgary Stampede sponsor ‘will not be encouraging employees to attend’ event 

Click to play video: 'Calgary Stampede serves as test for major events during pandemic'
Calgary Stampede serves as test for major events during pandemic

“It’s the first big test of summer, not just for Calgary, but even in the country,” said Cindy Ady, the CEO of Tourism Calgary.

“Most operators of events and festivals are carefully watching what is going to happen over the next 10 days, because it’s going to inform them if they can come back this summer.”

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The Calgary Stampede has told Global News that its operating plans “have been reviewed and supported by Alberta Health and the chief medical officer of health.”

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The current Stampede format was made possible when Alberta lifted almost all of its COVID-19 restrictions on July 1, including the requirement to wear a mask indoors. The move came after the number of coronavirus hospitalizations declined and once 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Stampede says volunteers and employees working at the event will wear a mask.

READ MORE: ‘Free of the mask’: Businesses taking cautious approach to Alberta lifting COVID-19 restrictions 

“It has been 16 of the toughest months I’ve ever seen — ever, not just in our city, worldwide — in this industry,” Ady said.

Lesley Plumley, the president of Calgary-based event-planning firm LP Events, said she believes Stampede organizers have done an excellent job of looking at how to ensure the city’s signature event is safe.

“Am I looking at the Stampede? Absolutely, because I want to see w,” Plumley said. “We are getting calls… so we’re planning for late into the year but we’re also seeing demand increase for major sporting events that are coming to Calgary for the following year.

She added that she has noticed hesitancy from clients when it comes to planning events and she is committed to moving forward cautiously.

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“During this pandemic and post-pandemic, we are going to be making sure that every little tiny thing is going to be looked after,” Plumley said.

She acknowledged that the Calgary Stampede will be under a magnifying glass as it is the first event of its size to go forward since Alberta emerged from public health restrictions last week.

“I wouldn’t want to be the Stampede at all,” Plumley said. “They have a lot of weight on their shoulders… to make sure that everything goes spectacular and cases do not rise during Stampede.

“I am very respectful that they are going ahead and going forward.”

AnneMarie Dorland, an associate professor of marketing at Mount Royal University, said she believes the Calgary Stampede faces a challenge in “putting yourself out there as a brand, to be trying something new.”

“They have a lot of support and partnership from the medical establishment, from community partners… but it is tough to be first out of the gate,” she said.

When asked if the Calgary Stampede’s brand could be hurt if a COVID-19 outbreak is linked to the event, Dorland said it’s “always damaging to think about an event that’s linked to an outbreak of any kind.”

“But the mitigation that they’re putting in place with the distancing, wider aisles, digital queueing, the Nashville North precautions that they’re putting in place, (they) are really setting the bar high for what is expected for their involvement, for keeping everybody safe,” she said.

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“All of this is really a first for Canada and it’s going to be a big change for the Stampede itself — as a brand — as they try to maintain the story they’re telling to Canadians.”

When asked how damaging it would be to the Calgary Stampede’s brand in the event COVID-19 outbreaks are linked to the event, a spokesperson for the Stampede said organizers recognize “this is a time of transition.”

“We recognize that there is both public excitement and some questions, and we remain committed to operating safely, meeting and exceeding all public health guidelines and continuing to work with partners to assess the situation and to make-real time decisions,” spokesperson Kristina Barnes said.

READ MORE: Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or rapid test required to visit Nashville North in 2021

Ady said she also believes safety will be paramount for this year’s Stampede.

“Especially as we are all coming out of our cave after 15 months — to really be clear in their communication about the things that they’re doing to create safety for people as they look at these events.”

READ MORE: Wildhorse Saloon ready to ride again during the 2021 Calgary Stampede 

Ady said hotel operators and event planners have seen their businesses be battered by the pandemic and she believes the Stampede offers a “sign of life.”

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“It is the major event in this industry for the city of Calgary,” she said. “Do we expect it to be at the 2019 levels? No, we do not. It will be muted in comparison, but a lot of it is about the beginning of the industry coming back to life.”

–With files from Global News’ Heather Yourex-West

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