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Coronavirus restrictions put Manti's annual Rat Fink Reunion in jeopardy

Coronavirus restrictions put Manti's annual Rat Fink Reunion in jeopardy

(Brian Champagne)


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MANTI — While many cities in Utah canceled events and programs upon first hearing of COVID-19 social distancing, Manti is holding out and hoping for its summer programs and, most importantly, its international event in early June.

The Rat Fink Reunion was scheduled for the first weekend in June, as it has been for 17 years. "Rat Fink" was the counter-culture answer to Mickey Mouse, created by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. If you’ve seen crazy monsters driving twisted, flame-spewing hotrods, you’ve seen his art — or at least his influence.

Roth died in 2001, but his friends, fans and followers from around the world gather to honor him and keep his art and attitude alive. They come from all over the U.S. and countries like Germany, Denmark and New Zealand. Hotels sell out county-wide, and Miller’s Drive-Thru always has a line of customers wearing Rat Fink T-shirts. The event is important to the Sanpete County economy, and to the "Finksters" who make the trip to get together with what they call "family."

When Utah implemented social distancing restrictions in March, event organizer Ilene Roth figured her June event wasn’t in danger of being canceled. She said she was way ahead in her preparations, printing flyers, posters, and 600 event T-shirts, with more generic ones ready to go. But as coronavirus numbers continued to rise, and the state extended its limits on gatherings, she got nervous.

Manti City Manager Kent Barton is choosing to wait and see as long as he can. The 4th of July celebration, city pool and youth sports leagues are all on tentative status, not canceled. Those events, along with the already-scrubbed Scandinavian Festival in nearby Ephraim, draw mostly locals and their families.

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Barton said Manti residents love the Rat Fink Reunion and the visitors who come from all over the world. But now that worldly influx could work against it: There are no diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Sanpete County, and Rat Fink Reunion co-organizer Cody Braithwaite would like to keep it that way.

Barton calls it a complicated issue: He’d love to see the reunion happen but is concerned for the safety of his citizens and community. He’s monitoring the COVID-19 numbers and directives from the state.

Braithwaite, who is also Ed Roth's son, is nervous about the 600 shirts printed; but if the event happens as scheduled, there’s still a lot more preparation to go. He said his biggest concern is that the country might have a soft opening of stores and restaurants but not allow big events.

A collection of Ed Roth's creations in the Rat Fink Museum. Ed's in the black-and-white photo on the back wall. (Photo: Brian Champagne)
A collection of Ed Roth's creations in the Rat Fink Museum. Ed's in the black-and-white photo on the back wall. (Photo: Brian Champagne)

Braithwaite makes his living traveling the country selling his dad's T-shirts and designs. If they move the Reunion back a few weeks, it would interfere with his family’s touring schedule. He’s torn between wanting to see the Reunion happen as scheduled and the risk of outsiders bringing the virus into his home city and county.

It’s complicated for Roth’s widow, Ilene: She helped plan one of the bigger reunions, with more artists coming on board, improvements to the Rat Fink Museum, and the curator of the National Corvette Museum as one of the guest speakers. She has money and time invested in the event; but for her, it’s more about seeing her Rat Fink family.

Finksters from thousands of miles away send messages asking her to hold out. But even if conditions improve and they make the drive, they might not be able to get food and hotel rooms along the way. She talks to Barton almost daily for updates on restrictions. And hopes.

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