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Oneida County Allows Hodag Country Fest To Move Forward Despite COVID-19 Risks

Hodag Country Festival

Note: in an announcement Thursday, the Hodag Country Festival reversed course and announced the event had been canceled for 2020.

Despite concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hodag Country Festival will go forward this July.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Oneida County Public Safety Committee granted a large gathering permit by a 4-1 vote. It mandates adherence to a 25-point safety plan put forward by event organizers, which includes a limit of 16,000 grounds-access wristbands sold for weekend days.

The country music event, which draws tens of thousands of people to Rhinelander, is scheduled for July 9 through 12. The 2020 event will be the 43rd annual festival.

“While we really want to hold the event and help out the Northwoods economy, we also need to ensure that we will be able to hold the festival next year and the year after that by not taking an unmanageable financial hit this year," Dawn Eckart, an officer with the Hodag Country Festival, told the committee in its virtual meeting.

Oneida County Corporation Counsel Brian Desmond indicated the county got about 100 public-comment emails on whether to hold the event this year. He said about two-thirds were against hosting the festival. All members of the public who commented during Tuesday’s meeting voiced concerns.

“Think of our children and the 40 percent elderly [population] that live here, and the 200-bed capacity that we have, and eight ventilators," said Mark Adams, who lives in Lake Tomahawk.

“I worry about the impact of starting a second wave of contagion in our area, not just personally, being in my 70s, but in the sense of being another member of the community who would have a really hard time absorbing a real wave like other, bigger cities have,” added Rick Martin, who lives near Rhinelander.

On May 15, Oneida County Health Officer Linda Conlon issued guidance after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers Safer at Home order. Among other items, Conlon’s guidance called for outdoor gatherings of no more than 50 people. However, Conlon’s directive is simply a set of guidelines, and is not enforceable. The guidelines can also change based on the county’s recovery from the virus.

"I have no independent authority as the Health Officer of Oneida County to stop the Hodag Country Festival," Conlon wrote in a Wednesday press release. "I would like the public to know that it was not a decision of the Oneida County Health Department to issue the large assembly permit for the Hodag Country Festival."

Current Wisconsin Department of Health Services guidelines “[do] not advise large gatherings, and there is no projected timeframe available as to when this advisory would change.”

Conlon said Oneida County’s next phase of guidance would allow up to 250 people in outdoor gatherings.

“Even if it’s 16,000 people [at Country Fest], that is well over 250 people. When you look at the WEDC, you look at the CDC, you look at DHS, it’s not just the Oneida County Health Department. This is the recommendation at the state level and the national level,” she said Tuesday.

County board supervisor Mitch Ives made the motion to approve the festival’s permit, saying private businesses should be able to make their own decisions. He also compared the festival’s proposed wristband numbers to daily traffic in Rhinelander.

“I don’t think that 16,000 people on a one-day thing, out at Country Fest, is any different than if you combine Walmart, Home Depot, and Menard’s,” he said. “I don’t see the difference between that at all, because there’s that many people that go there in a day.”

Ives joined supervisors Mike Timmons, Tom Kelly, and Russ Fisher in supporting the permit. Billy Fried was the lone vote against.

“Based on what I know now, and also what I don’t know, I don’t see how, in good conscience, I could be supporting a gathering of this magnitude in six weeks,” Fried said.

Also on Tuesday, Oneida County reported its eighth case of COVID-19. The person is in their 30s, has no history of travel, and no known contact with someone who has previously tested positive for COVID-19. The person was tested at a recent Wisconsin National Guard Community Testing event.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He then contributed with periodic stories until 2024. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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