Classes at Oklahoma State University are back in session and the students’ return is being felt across Stillwater, much to the joy of some and the chagrin of others.
The retailers, restaurants and bars that depend the student population for their survival have been anxiously awaiting their arrival and Tumbleweed, the 18 and over bar and music venue located west of town, is no different.
As in previous years, the venue known to locals as “The Weed” is welcoming the students and celebrating the beginning of the fall semester with a music festival featuring Red Dirt bands.
Tumbleweed owner Cary McBride said he has been getting pushback on the event but for him, it’s a matter of survival.
“I told the Chamber (of Commerce), ‘We either put this thing together or we just shut the doors for good,’” McBride told the News Press.
And it’s not just McBride’s business that is nearing a tipping point. Along with the bars, bar staff, musical acts and vendors across the country have been hit hard by canceled shows and the shutdowns and capacity limits enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 through communities.
“Venues like us were the first to close and the last to open,” he said.
Last spring, Tumbleweed was forced to cancel Calf Fry, a music festival that attracts about 30,000 music lovers to Stillwater over a three-day period each May. McBride has been trying to rebuild his business but a series of increasingly popular indoor concerts also had to be scrapped, he said.
Those cancellations don’t just hurt the owners, they hurt the staff, vendors, suppliers and musicians who depend on businesses like Tumbleweed to make a living.
“They have to feed their kids,” he said.
But McBride’s decision to hold the event is worrying residents and Stillwater’s city leaders alike. While the students bring energy, excitement and spending money to Stillwater every year, this year they are also expected to bring increased COVID-19 counts.
Patrons of the bars on the stretch of Washington Street known as “The Strip” complicated matters by making a poor showing of their willingness to social distance the weekend before classes began at OSU.
That led to calls in the community for Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce to issue an emergency declaration shutting down bars, which he decided against.
Joyce said he consulted with leaders in other college towns and is preparing an emergency declaration that will limit the capacity of bars and require patrons to be served while seated at tables. It’s a method other cities have employed to build some social distance into the students’ socializing.
The declaration is expected to take effect before this coming weekend.
But Tumbleweed is located outside the city limits, leaving the City of Stillwater with no control over its operation.
Local residents concerned about the influx of visitors and the number of people who will be gathered at the festival appeared before the Payne County Commission on Aug. 10 to ask the commissioners to stop Weedstock from happening.
The commissioners have also received a lot of calls from concerned citizens about it, District 2 Commissioner Chris Reding said.
The state legislature hasn’t given County Commissioners the authority to enact regulations on businesses located in unincorporated areas, he told the residents. Counties have the ability to enact limits on sound from oil wells but don’t really even have the ability to enforce that.
Payne County has no ability to enforce any regulations or zoning he said.
Reding addressed social media posts saying the commissioners have the ability to shut the festival down as “realistically not the truth.”
The specter of a spike in cases forcing Stillwater students out of in-person schooling is a particular concern for parents and some public school students.
Allie Essary, whose 9-year-old daughter Gracie started a petition to stop the festival, shared her own thoughts.
“We really wanted our kids to go back to school in person. We feel like that’s important to them,” Essary said. “So the way they are letting them come, by counting the numbers each week, and I understand doing that, but with the university, it just makes it a little more complicated because we have more people who count towards the cases. And those cases are not related to my kids.
“And we live near the Tumbleweed, so each year we pass by it, and they are kind of familiar with seeing kind of the mess it creates. So they noticed the fences going up, and Gracie asked how that would work with COVID and how that would affect them going back to school. So that’s kind of what gave them the idea to start the petition. But my biggest concern is that the numbers will go up because of people doing things that are selfish, in my opinion, and then they affect kids going back to school or not going to get to go back to school.”
McBride said he is going above and beyond to hold the event, which will primarily be outdoors, as safely as possible.
“The decision we made was a business decision … We know we’re going to be under a magnifying glass,” he said.
Some people have the false impression based on the name that Weedstock is a marijuana festival, but that isn’t true, McBride said. The name is a play on the venue’s nickname and the legendary Woodstock festival.
More than 70 dispensaries contacted McBride about being a part of it and were disappointed to find out it was just a music festival, he said.
McBride said he has spent at least $15,000 extra on supplies and PPE. Social distancing will be strongly encouraged. More security than usual will be on hand to break up large groups that are clustering together. Extra portable restrooms are being brought in and hand washing stations are being added.
Event staff will be checking temperatures and requiring masks on entry and while riding the shuttles that Tumbleweed runs to cut down on parking issues and drunken driving.
A VIP section with separate entrance, portable restrooms and bar will have limited capacity and have a built in buffer zone that separates it from the stage and dividers that separate it from the rest of the arena. People in the remainder of the space will have 15-20 acres on which to spread out.
It’s hard to say how many people will attend because people with tickets from the canceled Calf Fry festival can use them at Weedstock, McBride said. He’s expecting possibly one-third the crowd that Calf Fry attracts and has sold no more than 5,000 tickets so far for all three days.
“You’ll never hear me say again that I’m happy that ticket sales are as low as they are,” McBride said. “ … My biggest concern is that people will respect each other and CDC guidelines … The only way we’re going to move forward is for people to respect this.”
He says he’s willing to stop people from coming in or kick them out if they don’t.
Weedstock begins Thursday and runs through Saturday night.