DA Hummel says sheriff's office should have stopped it; Sheriff Nelson disagrees
REDMOND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- A weekend barrel racing event held at a Redmond arena over the weekend likely would have drawn scant attention beyond the participants a month ago. But that was then, and now it’s drawing disdain from the Deschutes County district attorney, scorn from some onlookers in social media and defense from its organizers, who say they worked hard to follow Gov. Kate Brown’s social distancing order to the letter.
NewsChannel 21 heard from several people before and during the event who said it should have been called off or shut down due to the governor’s call for Oregonians to halt all non-essential travel, to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
But Austin Hogue, whose family owns the Electric 3H Arena, said they went to major lengths to keep the attendance below 24 people at any one time, as the governor directed, and communicated with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office to draw up their plans and make sure they were complying with social distancing directives.
Sheriff Shane Nelson, like many in law enforcement, including Oregon State Police, said they stress education and will use enforcement, in terms of citations, only as a last resort.
“We don’t have the authority to shut these events down,” Nelson told NewsChannel 21 on Monday. “So in this particular case, we conferred with the county Legal Department, the DA’s office – and that included our sheriff’s office legal counsel – on how to best address this event.”
District Attorney John Hummel said he agrees with Nelson on stressing education first, not enforcement. But he said the organizers, even with all they did, still made the wrong call, and that the sheriff's office could have squelched the event by telling arrivals they would be cited if they stayed.
And he was blunt about it.
"I hope the guy who put this on is embarrassed by his community,” Hummel told NewsChannel 21. “I hope he's embarrassed. I hope people will subject him to ridicule and let him know what they think about his actions.
“He doesn't care about the safety of our community. He put his fun ahead of the safety of our community, so a pox on his house."
Earlier Monday, Hummel acknowledged by email, "The organizer of the event was legally allowed to host it, but if he cared about the health of his community, he would not have done so."
"What I told the sheriff’s office was that people who traveled to this event were in violation of the governor’s executive order limiting travel. I told the sheriff’s office that they could and should enforce this provision by having deputies stationed at the gates.
"The deputies could have informed every person who approached the gates that they were in violation of the governor’s order and that if the entered the arena they would be cited, but that if they turned around and went home they would not be.
"I assume most would have turned around and went home. Any that entered the arena should be cited, and I would prosecute them in court," Hummel said.
But he added, "Of course, it’s the sheriff’s decision whether to cite someone for a crime. I’m not trying to suggest that the sheriff had to follow my suggested course of action."
Hogue is dismayed by such criticism, and he’s heard plenty, but still believes they offered a safe, fun event to people in sore need of such activities.
“We feel that we took the proper steps to go through the right channels with everybody that we possibly could,” Hogue said. “I called the county multiple times, spoke with a county commissioner. We believed that we were going through all the correct channels.
“There were 44 entries throughout the entire weekend, and part of the executive order says there’s not allowed to be more than 24 people at any social gathering, that recreation activities are allowed if people stay six feet apart. We never went over 24 people.”
“This was not in any way, shape or form designed to be vindictive or disruptive to anything going on,” Hogue explained. “You can go to any store that’s still open in Central Oregon, and their security is not a quarter of what we had.”
“The reason we had our event is because agricultural people who make money doing this and who make money training horses are left without in this whole, entire event. There’s no unemployment package for government trainers. There’s no government bailout for horse people.”
Hogue's attorney, Greg Lynch, said he reviewed the governor's mandate and believed the event could be held without the guideline. He drafted a document for anyone at the event to sign, promising to follow those guidelines.
"People were there who were designated to implement and enforce the social distancing," Lynch said. "Anybody who violated would be subject to immediate ejection."
In fact, Hogue said, if the district attorney’s office had stepped in when they met with the sheriff’s office and made their views known, “if he’d have asked us to shut it down, we would have.”
“We sent a risk management plan,” he said. “We had lines paced out for emergency management. We had trailers parking some 100 feet apart. A lot of things in the executive order go back and forth, and are open to interpretation. Our family and our ranch had good intentions on hosting a fun event in a dark time.”
And Hogue said it was, despite it all, “a great event. People who were here loved it. There were light in their eyes. We had store clerks, bartenders, teachers who showed up, who haven’t been able to do much of anything. They had 18 seconds on a 300-by-200 dirt floor to put everything going on in the world aside and smile and do something they love.”