Minnesota sues rodeo for flouting coronavirus rules

The overwhelming majority of people seen at the rodeo were unmasked... and at least one had COVID-19 at the time.

The overwhelming majority of people seen at the rodeo were unmasked... and at least one had COVID-19 at the time. Minnesota Attorney General's Office

Every year, North Star Ranch holds a massive, three-day, open-air rodeo out in Effie, Minnesota.

Participants rope and ride for cash prizes, and spectators come out in droves. This year’s event was planned for a little over two weeks ago… right smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic.

A couple days before the event, officials with the Attorney General’s Office and the Minnesota Department of Health called up North Star Ranch owner Cimarron Pitzen to ask about his plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to a complaint filed Friday by Attorney General Keith Ellison, he didn’t have much of one. Pitzen was expecting “approximately 1,000 individuals to attend,” according to the complaint. They’d be “encouraged” to socially distance, but in the end, that would be on them.

That doesn’t exactly cut the mustard with state government these days. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order announced in June placed restrictions on certain outdoor events and large gatherings, including rodeos -- rules like limiting the venue to 25 percent capacity, not exceeding 250 attendees, requiring reservations in advance, and screening for COVID-19 at the door, among others.

Based on the size of the venue, North Star should have let in 132 people at a time to allow for distancing.

According to the Star Tribune, Pitzen, whose family has been running this rodeo since 1955, did not take kindly to this, “profanely” ended the conversation, and then posted the following announcement on the North Star Stampede Facebook page:

“Thanks to John Olson from the Mn Dept. of Health and Jason Pleggenkuhle from the Attorney General’s office pushing their political agendas, the North Star Stampede will take place with no spectators,” it read. “If people would like to come and protest against this ridiculous Government Over Reach [sic], feel free to do so, I will not stand in the way of peoples’ ‘Right to Assemble.’”

Some commenters compared it to the massive protests against police brutality that occurred directly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I think if they can protest and burn down buildings in the cities we can have a damn rodeo,” one commenter said.

A few “Effie Rodeo Matters” or “Cowboy Lives Matter” quips popped up in the thread. One commenter just wanted to know who the “F’n snitch” was. (It’s worth noting here that in his statement on Floyd’s death, Ellison “strongly encourage[d]” protesters to socially distance and wear masks.)

The next day, Pleggenkuhle left a voicemail for Pitzen asking to further discuss his plans, according to the complaint. The call was not returned. Nor was the following email.

The day of the rodeo, people showed up by the “thousands,” according to news reports. No one took tickets, but signs solicited “Free will donations.” Photos taken each day at the event show people packed into stands and milling about the grounds, the overwhelming majority unmasked.

“North Star Ranch allowed and encouraged far more than 250 individuals to attend the rodeo events each day, without enacting required limitations and precautions,” the complaint says. No advanced ticketing, no screening survey, no staggered seating, no social distancing while standing in line for refreshments. A rodeo clown did their rodeo clown thing.

And, from the complaint:

“Unsurprisingly, given the global pandemic that has been raging for months, the State has learned that at least one attendee – who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 – attended the rodeo on at least July 25 and 26 while they were infectious."

Pitzen didn’t respond to interview requests.

According to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office, this is the first action it’s brought to enforce that June executive order “against an entertainment venue that has operated in open defiance of the law.” It’s seeking civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, restitution, damages, and other forms of relief.

It’s also passing its information along to other governing bodies, like the Minnesota Department of Health, which might end in license suspension or revocation for some of the food vendors at the event.

“Business owners and event operators need to know that they are not above the law,” Ellison said in the statement. “If they risk the health and safety of our communities, my office will take strong action, as we are doing today.”

A spokesperson from the office sent a statement saying North Star had 20 days to respond to the complaint.