If you’re into rattlesnakes and crowds, Sweetwater is the place to be.
Normally, Sweetwater, Texas, is a tiny town of just under 11,000. But every year, over the second weekend in March, tens of thousands of people gather here for the “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup” (the “World’s Largest” is part of the name), a multiday festival where you can pet a live rattlesnake, participate in snake-catching contests, watch the Miss Snake Charmer pageant, or just mill about the souvenir booths with your friends.
This year’s roundup, at the Nolan County Coliseum, was packed with locals and tourists who’d traveled from all over the country, and even internationally — even though the entire nation is experiencing a pandemic. And it’s not just hitting large cities like San Francisco and New York. On Friday, the Governor of Texas declared a state of emergency.
Even as large-scale events have been going dark all across the country, the Rattlesnake Roundup went on.
“This might be the biggest event happening in America, and that in itself is scary,” said Robb McCann, who handles PR for the event. “That’s something that we’re taking very, very seriously. There’s a lot of eyes on us.”
If community spread were to happen, places like Sweetwater would be especially vulnerable. Texas has had more rural hospital closures than any other state.
But, McCann argued, canceling the event would have long-term effects on the community. “This event brings $8.4 million to this economy in one week.”
Three miles away from the festival grounds, Rolling Plains Memorial is the only hospital in the county. CEO Donna Boatright says that her facility could handle up to three serious cases of coronavirus, and that they have been taking precautions, including limiting visitors and setting up a community hotline.
VICE News spent a weekend in Sweetwater as the community weighed the risks of large events with the risk of economic impact.