After Receiving County Approval, Hodag Country Festival Cancels 2020 Event

Event Would Have Drawn More Than 16K People To Northwoods Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Rhinelander hodag
Marc Buehler (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Less than two days after the organizers argued successfully that their Northwoods country music festival should go forward, the Hodag Country Festival announced it will cancel its 2020 event.

An Oneida County Board committee on Tuesday granted organizers permission to hold the nine-day country music event that was expected to be attended by more than 16,000 people per day. The annual event in Rhinelander regularly draws tens of thousands of people from multiple states, many of whom camp on the festival grounds.

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On Wednesday, organizers told WSAW-TV that all the country acts that had been booked were still planning to play the festival.

But on Thursday afternoon, organizers posted a statement on their website announcing the festival that had been planned to start July 9 would instead be postponed and held July 8-11, 2021.

“Although our entertainers, vendors and many fest-goers were still hoping to participate in this year’s festival, we feel the safety of our community is more important,” the statement read.

The event received approval by a 4-1 vote at the committee, despite a recommendation against it by the Oneida County public health officer and public comments that ran overwhelmingly against it. The one board member who voted against permitting the event, Billy Fried, said there were too many unanswered questions and too much risk associated with allowing the event to move forward amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t see how in good conscience I could support a gathering of this magnitude in six weeks,” Fried said.

Public health officials advise against large public gatherings, where the virus can spread. Organizers said they planned to conduct temperature checks on workers at the festival but did not respond to a question from WPR about whether they would screen attendees.

In her comments to the County Board committee Tuesday, organizer Dawn Eckert said if forced to reduce capacity by 50 percent, “we would lose significantly more money than if we didn’t have the festival at all.” That’s because of the cost of security, equipment and labor, she said. At the time, she framed it as an argument for allowing the event to happen near its full capacity.

“While we really want to hold the event and help our Northwoods community,” Eckert told the committee, “we also want to be able to ensure that we will be able to hold a festival next year and the year after that by not taking an unmanageable financial hit this year.”

In their statement Thursday, festival organizers wrote that “the possibility of having the Hodag Country Festival has created stress and division in the Rhinelander area, and we are sincerely apologetic for this.”

The Wisconsin State Fair was also canceled Thursday, and is instead happening next summer.