By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — The rides are going up, concession stands are waiting, stuffed animals are displayed at games tables and the Calgary Stampede is raring to go Friday in its first return to full capacity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 10-day celebration of cowboy life was cancelled for the first time in its 112-year history in 2020.
It was back last year with a scaled-down version that included rapid COVID tests being required to enter some tents, a limit on how many people could be at Stampede Park and physical distancing guidelines.
In addition, the popular chuckwagon races were cancelled and the parade was held on the Stampede grounds with no spectators allowed.
That’s not the case this year.
“Stampede is back. It’s been a tough couple of years for all of us, so you can feel the vibe around here and we’re looking forward to the excitement,” said Steve McDonough, the Stampede’s president and chairman of the board.
“Everything is back to what you know and love, but it’s even better. We’ve taken all the learnings from last year and we’ve redesigned the Calgary Stampede for the future — it’s ready to go.”
McDonough said the event isn’t about to throw caution to the wind after COVID-19. He said there will still be hand sanitation stations throughout the park, there will be places people can go to avoid the crowds and masks are optional for people who might be a little bit nervous.
“Last year people were very, very cautious. I don’t think we’re going to break any attendance records. Last year it was at about 532,000 people,” he said.
“If we come up to the million I’ll be extremely happy.”
McDonough is relieved that the limited Stampede went ahead last year at a time when public events were unheard of.
“We’re still going to be shaking the rust off and if we didn’t have the 2021 Calgary Stampede it would have been that much more difficult,” he said.
“We were the first major group and gathering in Canada. Our protocols were used by every other sport and fair gatherings across Canada.”
Scooter (Greg) Korek, vice-president of client services for North American Midway Entertainment, will be making his 45th appearance at the Stampede.
Growing up in Calgary ,he joined the midway group as a teen. He said the return of regular fairs has been spectacular and began in Miami in March. It was most recently in Manitoba.
“I think there’s some pent-up demand out there in the community and some of these fairs, in Manitoba, hadn’t played since 2019 and we had a spectacular run and I don’t expect anything less here at the Stampede,” said Korek, who’s 62.
“We’re kind of putting the pandemic behind us and getting on with some fun.”
North American Midway Entertainment was forced to quarantine for two weeks last year before being allowed to set up shop in Calgary.
Korek said the layout of the midway will be slightly different this year to accommodate the expansion going on throughout the park. He said there are three new rides this year including the largest travelling ferris wheel in Canada
The Calgary Stampede runs from Friday to July 17.