Ride ‘em cowboy!

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Posted July 27, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

Shriners’ annual rodeo will go on as planned.

COVID-19 has radically upended the social calendar of much of Marion County since April.

But as the community heads into the fall in a few weeks, one major local sporting event will continue as planned, even if it is scaled back to accommodate concerns about public health.

The Ocala Shriners Rodeo will be back for its 38th year over Labor Day weekend, the event’s chief organizer said.

“We are still putting on the Shriners’ Rodeo in September,” said Keith Poole, director of the rodeo for the Ocala Shrine Club.

“It’s going to be a little bit different this time. It’ll be a little challenging. But we’re going to give a whirl, even with COVID. I think the town needs it.”

Poole said the event, held annually at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala, will not be sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as it has in the past.

The PRCA also governs the Southeastern Pro Rodeo, which took place last weekend at the pavilion.

That rodeo, now in its 27th year, is usually held each spring. Yet its date kept being pushed back because of the coronavirus and the state’s limits on large gatherings.

Poole said the association’s rules prohibit two events within 90 days. The Shriners appealed, he added, but the organization would not budge on that provision. Thus, the Shriners opted to alter their rodeo.

“It’s difficult to get cowboys to come to the South this time of year,” Poole explained. “And they’re not going to turn around and come back within five weeks.”

So instead, the Shriners will offer a weekend of “Broncs, Bulls and Bullfighting.”

Under the revamped format, some traditional rodeo events will not be held. But Poole said fans can be assured the event will offer plenty of entertainment, even though the “bullfighting” has nothing to do with matadors brandishing red capes and swords.

Still, it pits the cowboy against the bull in a duel in which both are judged. “It’s a train wreck, but it’s a lot fun,” Poole joked.

“We’re disappointed that we’re not doing a full rodeo, but the crowd is not going to know the difference,” he added.

The Southeastern Pro Rodeo this month will give local officials an opportunity to gauge how well COVD-19 mitigation measures will work.

County Parks and Recreation Director Jim Couillard said capacity for the rodeo was halved, to a maximum of 2,500 tickets that can be sold.

And the organizers have agreed to bear the liability of any possible illness that emerges from the event.   

“I couldn’t tell you” how the Shriners Rodeo may be affected in a few weeks, Couillard said. “It changes so frequently, and we’ll have to see how things go.”

But, he added, Health Department officials seemed pleased with the mitigation measures the Southeastern Pro Rodeo was willing to implement.

In an email, Health Department spokesman Craig Ackerman said the rodeo organizers were informed of tactics the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for keeping gatherings safe, such as modifying the layout of the event, providing physical barriers and staggering exit times.

Poole said the Shriners would abide by recommendations to keep fans safe. And he believes the event, even a modified version, will generate sufficient attendance to allow the Shriners to raise funding to help local groups as well as the children’s hospital in Tampa.

Over the past 37 years, Poole said, the rodeo has raised a total of $2 million.

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