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At least 15 states have canceled their annual fairs due to public health concerns amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, while others are moving ahead with modified, pared-down events.
Every summer, Sue Stern, her husband, her two daughters and her grandchildren meet in Columbus to attend the Ohio State Fair. They park in the same place, enter through the same gate, check out the animals on display, and then feast on corn dogs and elephant ears, washed down with ice-cold lemonade.
“We always look forward to it. It’s tradition,” Stern said. “It’s the excitement, and all of the people, and the animals, and all the different things that the little kids like. It’s homey. We go every year.”
Except for this one. In May, officials canceled the Ohio State Fair due to public health concerns about holding it during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, along with the “financial feasibility” of converting the fair, which drew nearly a million visitors last year, to an event where people could easily space out.
“Knowing how easily the virus spreads in large groups, we believe it is the safest path forward for the health and safety of all Ohioans,” Andy Doehrel, chair of the Ohio Expositions Commission, said in a statement. “The financial ramifications of hosting a reduced-capacity fair would be too great, and we need to protect the great Ohio State Fair for future generations.”
At least 15 states have canceled their annual fairs for similar reasons, fearing that thousands of people crowding food booths and waiting in line for rides would lead to an uptick in coronavirus cases. Public health officials have generally discouraged large gatherings and said that social distancing—maintaining at least 6 feet of space between unrelated people in public—is key to preventing transmission of the respiratory illness, which continues to spread in large swaths of the country.
Officials said the cancellations were necessary to protect public health, but in many cases, the decisions were still difficult. In Tennessee, members of the State Fair Association board met twice for “lengthy sessions” earlier this month to discuss options for the 10-day fair, originally scheduled for Sept. 11 to 20. They opted to cancel, in part because a temporary decrease in the size of the fairgrounds due to ongoing construction of a soccer stadium would make it impossible for attendees to spread out.
“The more we talked with local and state officials, gathered information from those involved with similar events and discussed the topic thoroughly within our own board, we came to the conclusion that it would be best this year to not host a traditional state fair,” Scott Jones, the fair manager, said in a June 8 statement.
In Minnesota, officials decided in May to cancel the August fair, citing public health concerns along with difficulties recruiting volunteers and potential supply shortages for food vendors and souvenir stands.
“The State Fair is built on a vast network of agriculturists, vendors, artists, entertainers, competitors, amusement operators, sponsors, State Fair staff and thousands more who always give their very best. They are the pillars of the fair, and almost all have been affected during the past two months,” Jerry Hammer, the fair’s manager, said in a statement. “Some are doing okay, but many have eroded, including some who provide our biggest and best programs...Some commercial exhibitors are past their deadlines for getting products, and now there’s even a question of adequate supplies for food vendors. And many are having trouble finding people who are willing to work in crowds.”
The cancellations are a blow to tourists and fair devotees, but also to local economies, which reap millions of dollars from out-of-town visitors who stop at restaurants and shops during their stays. The Minnesota State Fair, for example, generated $268 million for Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2018, according to an economic impact study. The Iowa State Fair, “postponed” until next August, generates about $100 million for Des Moines, while the Wisconsin State Fair, canceled in May, has an economic impact of about $200 million.
It’s unlikely that states will recoup that revenue, but the public health risks associated with large events must take precedence, said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
“It’s clear that anytime you bring a lot of people together in a rather unstructured way, the chances of you passing on that virus increases exponentially. That’s not good for anybody," Evers told the Milwaukee Business Journal. "Yes, [canceling the fair] will have an economic impact, there’s no question about it. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of things.”
But not every state is opting to cancel. Some, including Nebraska and Kansas, are waiting to make final decisions, while other states, including Indiana and Colorado, are moving forward with modified events. Indiana’s fair will focus solely on agricultural competitions, while fair officials in Colorado are planning a “reimagined” expo, featuring agricultural events (a junior livestock show and sale, FFA Heifer Wrangle, and a handful of 4-H exhibits) along with limited food and vendor booths, a pared-down selection of carnival rides and games and “virtual competitive exhibits.” Entrance fees will be waived, and the fair will operate under “new guidelines,” including a limit on the number of people on the fairgrounds at one time.
“More than anything, the Colorado State Fair exists to serve the people of Colorado and beyond,” Scott Stoller, the fair’s general manager, said in a statement. “This mission can take on many forms. This year, it means managing smaller groups of people on the fairground property, maintaining social distancing, and providing it for use as a testing site.”
Missouri’s state fair, slated for 10 days in mid-August, is expected to continue as well, Gov. Mike Parson told reporters last week.
“The fair will look different this year, but we’re going to do everything we can to safely make it happen and keep tradition going and alive,” Parson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We have to get focused back on the economy.”
Parson’s comments came an hour after the state reported 283 new cases of Covid-19, its second-largest daily increase since June 4. Four days later, fair officials announced a cancellation—there will be no rabbit shows at this year’s event due to the high risk of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus serotype 2, a highly contagious and potentially fatal illness.
“The movement of live rabbits, such as for shows or fairs, presents a significant risk for spread of the disease due to the commingling of rabbits,” fair officials said in a statement. “(The Missouri Department of Agriculture) recommends postponing or canceling rabbit shows until more is known about the distribution of the virus and/or until vaccination is available.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.