Hodag Country Festival Will Be Among State’s First Large Events Amid Pandemic

More Than 16K Expected At July Festival In Rhinelander

Rhinelander hodag
Marc Buehler (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A country music festival with expected attendance of more than 16,000 people per day is among the first major gatherings in Wisconsin approved to move forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hodag Country Festival in Rhinelander has held concerts for more than 40 years and has featured some of the biggest names in country music. On Tuesday, a committee of the Oneida County Board voted to give the festival permission to move forward despite opposition from a large majority of public commenters and a recommendation against the event from the county Health Department.

The nine-day festival will begin July 9. It draws thousands of visitors to the Northwoods from multiple states, many of whom camp on the sprawling festival grounds north of the city.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Many of the state’s largest summer festivals, from Milwaukee’s Summerfest to Madison’s Great Taste of the Midwest, have been postponed or canceled this year out of concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.

But the Hodag Country Festival is one of only a few large-scale events with plans to move ahead as scheduled. Organizers presented plans to offer sanitizing stations, recommend attendees wear masks and sanitize bathrooms and “high-touch areas” frequently. The festival also will reduce capacity from about 25,000 per day to 16,500.

That’s not close to what public health officials recommend. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state Department of Health Services and local agencies recommend no public gatherings of 50 people or more. If Wisconsin sees a downward trajectory in new flu-like illnesses and other public health metrics, those recommendations increase to 250 people. That’s 1.5 percent of the expected attendees to the Hodag festival.

“When you look at the (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.), you look at the CDC, you look at DHS — it’s not just the Oneida County Health Department” making these recommendations, county health officer Linda Conlon told the county’s Public Safety Committee. “This is a recommendation at both the state level and the national level.”

Another outdoor music festival, the three-day Rock Fest in Cadott, was canceled Wednesday afternoon. The three-day festival was scheduled to start the week after the Hodag Country Festival.

Country Fest is a sister festival to Rock Fest, also held in Cadott. In April, Country Fest postponed its summer concert from late June to mid-August.

About two-thirds of the public comments submitted to the Oneida County Board asked the board not to approve the Hodag Country Festival. At the Tuesday meeting, public comments were overwhelmingly opposed. One speaker, Mark Adams of Lake Tomahawk, said he feared that an outbreak could mean that “our Northwoods would become like Illinois, and no one would come then,” Adams said.

But board members weren’t swayed.

“The people are already here,” said board member Mitch Ives. “The tourism season already started. … Six weeks from now, we’re going to have an influx of way more than 30,000 people into Oneida County. That’s already seen in our Home Depot, our Walmart. People have not been social distancing in this county for a couple weeks now.”

Ives voted with the 4-1 majority in favor of allowing the festival to go forward.

Organizers did not respond to WPR’s requests for comment and did not respond to emailed questions, including whether attendees would have their temperatures screened. In a statement on its website, organizers wrote that “we will, to the best of our ability, demonstrate that events can be safely held when everyone works together.”

Editor’s note: Ben Meyer of WXPR contributed reporting to this story.