Local law enforcement officials spent months preparing for the thousands of people that were predicted to show up in Crook County for the solar eclipse.
But due to gross miscalculation by Symbiosis event organizers — or a blatant disregard for the 30,000-person cap county officials placed on the mass gathering permit it approved — local cops were left scrambling.
Wednesday morning before the eclipse Third Street began to clog and parties sprung up in parking lots as festival visitors waited to hit the road and enter the gate at the Big Summit Prairie site. At the time, the sudden surge of travelers seemed to match expectations — be prepared for busy roads and leave early for destinations. Locals who had the time sat and people-watched as colorful buses and vehicles, filled with equally colorful people, passed through town.
But as the day progressed, the traffic jam grew, leaving a U.S. highway in gridlock into and through Prineville. Reports trickled in of cars lining up for miles beyond the gate.
It would only get worse Thursday as the rest of the festival-goers came though the community, backing up traffic from the gate to the edge of town — nearly 40 miles away. Local officials forced to act or lock down the town's main source of east-west travel, diverted travelers down the Paulina highway and into the festival site while shutting down eastbound traffic at the Combs Flat intersection. They had to wait four hours for traffic to fade before re-opening the highway.
Traffic proved to be the most challenging and most public issue that law enforcement faced, although officials point out that the contracted security charged with keeping law and order inside the festival gates was not prepared for the estimated 70,000 or more people that attended.
Amazingly, the Symbiosis festival passed with few significant emergencies and the traffic situation, as challenging as it became, was handled masterfully by law enforcement personnel who were thrust into tackling the problem on the fly. We would add that the police department set a new standard in citizen communication and transparency, keeping citizens and visitors apprised of emergencies, traffic information and event details seemingly up-to-the-minute for more than a week.
The festival visitors likewise deserve our thanks. While some people and businesses faced some difficult situation or people, the majority of businesses and local leaders gushed about how pleasant and polite the travelers behaved. Sure, they looked different and brought a unique culture to the community, but they were mostly friendly and grateful Crook County shared its community with them.
That said, we have to ask the festival organizers what the heck happened? County officials approved a 30,000 mass gathering permit believing that threshold would get honored. Although the official attendance figure is not yet determined, law enforcement leaders learned — after some persistence on their part — that 28,000 cars had passed through the event gate. Assuming 2.5 passengers per vehicle — an estimate that Sheriff John Gautney considers very conservative — that comes to at least 70,000 people.
Soon county officials will debrief and look over the eclipse experience and part of that effort will undoubtedly include an examination of the Symbiosis festival and the inability or unwillingness of organizers to keep the event at its county-mandated threshold.
This could be uncharted territory. Perhaps no event has so egregious that exceeded the approved visitor total, leaving county leaders to figure out their next move. Do they penalize the festival organizers with a fine? Do they forbid future gatherings or only allow them under heavy restriction? Who knows?
But what we do know is this community is very fortunate that an additional 40,000 or more visitors didn't result in far more emergencies. What if there had been a fire or a fatality?
What is certain is something needs to be done. The county needs to hold the festival organizers responsible for likely tripling their approved attendance level. They must have known how many passes they were selling and the expanded attendance created unpresendented traffic congestion and the massive traffic jam that ensnarled the Prineville area.The expanded attendance prompted additional overtime for law enforcement and emergency services than an event with 30,000 would have required. Fairness would put at least that cost on the back of the festival organizers.
The festival was generally a good thing for Crook County; the lack of honesty from the organizers, however, not so much.