The 81st Annual Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes is continuing as planned, with the gates opening midweek for the first arrivals of students and their show animals.

Things were already busy at the showgrounds Wednesday morning as plenty of youngsters prepared for the first round of animal judging, which was slated to begin at 8 a.m. Thursday. “The barn is full,” RGVLS board President Mike Risica said during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.

Some 1,100 agricultural students from Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties, as well as the surrounding areas, are set to show more than 3,000 projects during the 11-day event, Risica said.

And there’s a lot at stake for the kids who raise the best future steak, pork chop or lamb chop. On the line? Millions of dollars in scholarships. “Last year we gave $1.8 million back in scholarships and in premium,” Risica said.

The majority of the scholarships are awarded to ag students whose animals win top marks during the week and a half of judging, but there’s other ways to win a scholarship, too. Risica said the organization awards more than $50,000 in academic scholarships, and another $50,000 in showmanship awards — scholarships that are given to students who do a great job of showing their animal in the arena, even if their animal doesn’t wind up winning best in show.

Meanwhile, while the kids are vying for future college funds, on the other side of the showgrounds dozens of professional cowboys and cowgirls are slated to compete in bull riding, saddle bronc and bareback riding, barrel racing, calf roping and more as they compete for cash prizes and bragging rights.

Droves more people will stroll through the midway, enjoying all the carnival food and carnival rides one can imagine. Last year, approximately 300,000 people came through the gates of the sixth-largest livestock show and rodeo in Texas, Risica said.

“I call this the Disneyland of the Valley because you can come and see all the animals, you’ve got petting zoos, you got all the funnel cakes, you’ve got all the popcorn, you got the turkey legs,” Risica said.

It’s perhaps the single largest event in the Valley, and pumps between $6-8 million into the local economy. And it’s slated to proceed as planned, despite growing concerns nationwide of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the emergent pathogen a pandemic, with more than 100,000 people infected worldwide. More than 1,300 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. thus far, with 38 reported deaths.

Across the country, mass gatherings are being cancelled or postponed. The Houston Livestock Show, which got underway late last month, suspended operations Wednesday afternoon after Houston and Harris County leaders made an emergency health declaration there. That city has just over a dozen reported cases of the illness.

But thus far no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Rio Grande Valley, and Hidalgo County leaders are urging calm. Stock show officials have been in constant contact with county health officials, and currently have no plans to close the stock show, Risica said. “At this point, we have no intention of shutting down unless something major drastic would happen,” Risica said.

But that doesn’t mean the show’s organizers have their “heads in the sand,” he added.

Officials have gone to lengths to beef up their preparations, doubling the number of handwashing and sanitizing stations, posting hygiene guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in prominent places, and encouraging workers to stay home if they feel ill, Risica said.

Too, the stock show has hired additional staff specifically to clean and sanitize common areas, such as handrails.

“We feel we’ve taken all the precautions that we can take and we’re just hoping it doesn’t come here,” Risica said, adding that officials are prepared to re-evaluate things if it becomes necessary.

Though animal judging began Thursday, the stock show won’t get its official start until Saturday morning, with the RGV Livestock Show Parade. The parade begins at 10 a.m. and runs along Texas Avenue in Mercedes.

darevalo@mvtcnews.com