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Fair organizers across the country weigh options

While Memorial Day weekend typically marks the unofficial beginning of summer for most Americans, fair season almost always signifies the conclusion of the same period as people gather in August and September for livestock auctions, carnival rides, outdoor concerts and fair food.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, however, plans for those events have taken a turn. In Frederick, Maryland, the Great Frederick Fair, which welcomes thousands into the community each September, announced this week that it hopes to move forward as planned with this year’s event, which is planned to run from Sept. 18-26.

The Great Frederick Fair has not canceled,” the board’s statement read. “GFF is closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation. We remain cautiously optimistic while continuing to plan and prepare for the 158th annual fair. The Great Frederick Fair’s top priority is the health and safety of our guests, exhibitors and volunteers.

“The fair has always been diligent in providing a safe environment with adequate hand washing stations and a clean facility,” the statement continued. “We will continue to improve our processes and take appropriate action as necessary using the guidelines from the local, state and federal authorities. The situation is a moving target and constantly changing.”

Yet while organizers for one of Maryland’s most celebrated fairs maintain hope for this year’s festivities, other states have already moved forward with other options, including everything from a virtual event to cancelling the celebration altogether.

Ogden Newspapers reached out to fair organizers and officials in five states this week to see where they are in the process of planning as the unofficial beginning of summer is upon us. The following is what we found.

MICHIGAN

In a tough decision, the Alpena County Fair Board decided on May 18 to cancel its fair, which this year, had been scheduled for the last week in August. Board Vice President Courtney Krentz said on Friday that the decision was based on the safety and health of the public, as well as giving the carnival workers and entertainers ample notice so it was not canceled at the last minute.

“It takes so much time and effort to plan something like this, and there are so many people that are involved and so many different entrepreneurs and vendors and entertainers,” Krentz noted. “And we just could not see dragging this out any longer, just because it’s so uncertain what it’s going to be like in August.”

While mulling the decision, the board considered the carnival company, the bands, the rodeo performers and all involved.

“This is their paycheck in the summertime, so we just didn’t want to leave them hanging,” Krentz said.

Some people have expressed frustration on social media over the cancellation, but many understand why it was done, Krentz explained.

“There’s a lot of frustration, I guess, because it is so far out yet,” Krentz said. “There are some people that are thankful that we were looking out for the community’s health and safety, but it is a lot of frustration.”

She explained that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s reopening plan has six stages, and fairs are in the sixth stage. Currently, Alpena is in stage two, as restaurants are set to reopen this weekend.

“It took us so long to get from stage one to stage two,” Krentz said. “Fairs are in the final stage. And that’s basically the biggest part — that we just did not feel that we would be in stage six by August.”

On the 4-H side of the fair, the local Michigan State University Extension is planning to hold virtual 4-H showings and award presentations in an online platform they are currently setting up for use statewide. Alpena’s 4-H proceedings will take place the last week in August because the animals will be at the proper age and weight for showing at that time, Krentz said.

She said all the 4-H kids she has talked to are excited about the online platform.

“Most of them are super excited about it, especially the younger ones,” she said. “Just being able to be on a screen is pretty cool to them.”

WEST VIRGINIA

As various businesses and facilities reopen or prepare to do so, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has not yet issued guidance for fairs.

That leaves local boards and volunteers weighing how to proceed with the annual events.

A decision is expected to be made when the Wirt County Fair Association meets by phone Thursday on whether the 61st annual fair will still take place from Aug. 5-8.

“I’ve been wanting to hold off as long as we could, but every single day more and more fairs and festivals are canceling,” Fair Association President Debbie Hennen said. “If you can only have a gathering of 25 people, you can’t have a fair.”

The Wirt County Volunteer Fire Department’s Fourth of July celebration has already been called off, Hennen said. If the fair follows suit, it will be the first cancellation in its history.

“The fair is the end-of-summer celebration and homecoming for the entire community,” Hennen said. “People plan their vacations around it.”

Families of 4-H and FFA students planning to exhibit animals need clarification, Hennen said. Even if the fair and sale were to take place, she’s not sure the businesses will be able to spend what they usually do on the animals at auction.

The Jackson County Junior Fair Board, meanwhile, made their call this week, opting to cancel the 2020 fair due to the ongoing pandemic.

“The decision was made with the safety of our youth and our community in mind during these trying times, as well as the financial future of fairs to come,” the fair board said in an announcement on its website. “It was a decision that was not taken lightly, as we know that the fair is a major event for our youth, their families and our community.”

The board still plans to offer opportunities for 4-H and FFA livestock and horse exhibitors an opportunity to show their project animals. Graduating seniors will be eligible to participate in the fair’s 2021 livestock sale as well.

KANSAS

In Douglas County, Kan., two plans have been created for the Douglas County Fair, and they are contingent upon which phase of the governor’s reopening plan Kansas is in at the end of July.

If the state is still in Phase 1 or Phase 2 by the time of the fair, July 28 to Aug. 1, the fair will be held virtually. If the state is in Phase 3 or higher, the fair will occur in person, albeit with restrictions. In both scenarios, the fair will only be open for 4-H divisions to display their projects.

“We want to give the 4-Hers every opportunity to have that face-to-face interaction with the judges, but we want to do it in the safest way possible,” said Margaret Kalb, executive secretary of the Douglas County Fair Board.

It is unlikely the fair will be virtual, as Kansas entered Phase 2 of the reopening plan on Friday. Kalb said she expects that Kansas will be in Phase 3 or higher by the time of the fair, but should Kansas see a surge in cases or increased restrictions, a virtual fair is still an option.

Because the fair will only be open for 4-H divisions to display their projects, there will be no open class exhibits, no carnival, no concerts, and no tractor pulls, Kalb said.

“We just didn’t know how in the world we would be able to practice social distancing when we have sometimes between 4,000 to 5,000 people at our demolition derby plus another 3,000 participating in the carnival rides,” she said.

Tuesday night, a joint meeting will be held by the Douglas County Fair Board and Kansas State University Research and Extension – Douglas County to consider adopting the two proposed plans.

For the virtual fair, participants would submit videos of each project entry and receive feedback via recorded video or written comments from a judge. This scenario would include a virtual livestock auction.

For the in-person fair, participants and judges would practice social distancing, be encouraged to wear face masks and have the option to submit their projects virtually, should they so choose.

Projects will not be on public display and only exhibitors and their immediate families will be allowed on the grounds. For livestock projects, no livestock will stay overnight, and exhibitors will be encouraged to show out of a trailer, when possible. Social distancing will be practiced inside the show ring, and the livestock auction will still take place virtually.

“We are going to try and do everything possible to make it a good experience for the 4-H kids,” Kalb said, noting that they will “still get a chance to show their animals.”

OHIO

While fairs are a common pastime for families in the summer, the current pandemic has made their viability uncertain.

On Thursday, the Ohio Expositions Commission announced that the 2020 Ohio State Fair will be canceled. It was scheduled to run July 29 to Aug. 9 in Columbus. Beyond concern for public health and safety, the commission said it would not be financially practical.

“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.” said Andy Doehrel, chair of the Ohio Expositions Commission, in a prepared 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.”

Last year, nearly 100,000 people attended the event.

Paul Harris, First Vice President of Ohio Fair Managers Association, said the opening of county fairs, meanwhile, is still uncertain, as it is up to the county’s board to make the decision.

Harris said Gov. Mike DeWine has expressed that he would like to keep junior fairs operational, so the children could still have the experience. This, he said, is also not financially responsible for many fairs.

“The governor has made it clear that he’d like to keep junior fairs alive, he’s not really interested in keeping the rest of the fair going,” he said. “But our situation is, the rest of the fair is what pays the bills.”

Harris said Paulding and Marion Counties have both canceled their fairs for the summer.

“There’s been no directive from the governor at this point that says we can’t have a fair, but there hasn’t been any support to say we can either,” Harris said. “You can’t just turn it on in three weeks, so the governor is really putting us in a bind.”

If the fairs only operated the junior programs, kids involved in 4-H projects can show them and market and show their animals, with a livestock sale.

Harris said that to run only the junior program would cost close to $10 million and without gating admission, concessions or grandstand revenue, they would not be able to recapture what was spent.

If fairs operated only a junior fair, Harris said he wouldn’t be surprised if it bankrupted a third of the fairs in Ohio.

He then went on to explain that fairs are considering sharing the purchase of hand sanitizers and limiting people, and discussing further measures to increase safety.

“The experience the 4-H kids get out of it is just priceless,” Harris said.

PENNSYLVANIA

This year would have been Nikki Coffield’s last year to show market hogs at the Washington County Fair in Pennsylvania.

The Hickory resident has been involved in Future Farmers of America for seven years, and she has been showing at the fair for the past five.

“You don’t really think about the last time you’ll zip up your jacket or step in the show ring,” she said. “You have so much in mind for how you’re going to spend those last moments.”

If the fair is canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Coffield’s last time to show will have already come and gone.

“What if I’ll never get to do it again?” she said. “It’s really starting to sink in. Did I get everything that I wanted out of this experience? Did I do enough the year before to make it okay that I’m not getting that full closure this year that I was expecting.”

The Washington County Fair, scheduled for Aug. 15-22, hasn’t been canceled yet, but the board is scheduled to meet June 4 to discuss what options it has moving forward. Wayne Hunnell, a director and secretary of the Washington County Fair Board, said part of that discussion will include the possibility of “an abbreviated fair” to include the market livestock shows and sales.

“When you look at the data we spend with all the shows, it is a big piece of the fair, there’s no doubt,” Hunnell said.

He said the board will need to make a decision by mid-June, as it would need to allow children time to register animals and projects.

“We’re getting to the point of, if we are having a fair, there’s a number of things we need to get done,” he said.

Should it still happen, it will be the county’s 222nd installment of the fair.

“Not only for myself but the entire board and residents of Washington County, if we’re not going to do a fair, it would be a difficult pill to swallow,” he said. “That’s why we’re looking at other alternatives.”

He said one issue is that 4-H and FFA groups are not allowed to meet or have virtual shows or sales. They may consider having the shows under a different name, like a junior livestock sale.

Lisa Bioni, of Claysville, Pa., is a 4-H and FFA leader. She said for her students, the fair is their vacation each year.

“They can’t leave for a week on vacation because their animals need taken care of day in and day out,” she said. “They’re actually missing out on their vacation.”

Bioni said the students invest time and money into their animals, purchasing feed and trips to the vet.

“Hopefully, they can sell their animals, even if it’s just by word of mouth,” she said.

The idea of not having a fair, especially such a long-standing tradition, is a strange feeling for Coffield.

“I grew up going to the fair every year and seeing all the animals,” she said. “I never expected for a pandemic to occur in my last year.”

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