'If it's sacrifice to keep people safe, I'm OK': Vendors react to State Fair cancellation

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Minnesota State Fair
Visitors enter the main gate at the Minnesota State Fair in August 2019. Fair officials on Friday announced that the 2020 State Fair was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of Minnesota State Fair 2019

What's now Danielson and Daughters Onion Rings was started by Leanne Danielson Mear's father at the Minnesota State Fair almost seven decades ago.

But after fair officials on Friday announced the cancellation of the 2020 fair amid the coronavirus pandemic, this will be the first summer in over 50 years that Mear won't work at the fairgrounds.

"I've never had a Labor Day weekend. What does a person do with Labor Day weekend?" she said with a laugh.

News that the State Fair was canceled this year for safety reasons wasn't a complete surprise to Mear and others. There are people especially vulnerable to the virus in the crowds, which topped more than 2 million visitors in 2019.

Mear's 89-year-old mother still is somewhat involved with fair activities. And the onion ring stand has older regular customers who have been going there for decades.

"No, I don't want to see them harmed by going out ... because they needed an order of onion rings," Mear said. "It's not worth it."

A crowd of people at the fair.
A crowd packs onto the streets on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair in August 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

After a few months of watching how the pandemic affected large events, the State Agricultural Society made the decision to call off this year's fair. General Manager Jerry Hammer said canceling was the only choice.

"We all love the fair. And that's exactly why we can't have a fair this year," he said. "This is about playing the long game; this is about the future of the fair. This isn't about doing something now. This isn't about risking everything on a bad bet. This is about doing the right thing for the future of the fair."

Hammer said calls to partially open the fair weren't in the spirit of the event that draws visitors from across the state and beyond.

"In effect, what some of the folks are saying, the big fair fans, is, 'Well, let the healthy people go.' Well, that's not who we are and that's not what we do," he said. "It's got to be accessible for everybody. And a significant number of folks have some sort of health risk, some sort of compromised health."

Hammer acknowledged that canceling the fair will be hard for thousands of people who rely on it for income. But canceling the event isn't unprecedented.

The last time the fair was canceled was during the polio epidemic of 1946. It's also been canceled on four other occasions, during times of war or even when another event — the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago — conflicted with it in 1893.

"It's a hard thing to do but it's this year, it's temporary," Hammer said. "What we need to concentrate on is the future, and what's best for the fair. We've been here before."

A sign reads "Hang in there, Minnesota."
A marquee at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds offers encouraging words in April.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The decision is felt statewide. Juleah Tolosky is executive director of the Minnesota FFA, which serves students across the state who are interested in agriculture and food issues. Tolosky said her organization already had canceled its own statewide gatherings, to ensure that students didn't carry the virus back to their communities.

But the state fair cancellation hurts; she said the fair is traditionally when consumers can meet and interact with the people who grow and raise their food.

"Without the fair, we lose that opportunity, and we also lose a little bit of an opportunity to put agriculture in the forefront," she said.

And it's a lost financial opportunity for vendors like Sara Hayden. She said the fair was a game changer for her business, Sara's Tipsy Pies.

She'll miss the profitable 12 days of the fair, which helped her pay for her own bakery space.

But she said holding the fair in spite of the dangers would go against what the fair stands for, of giving all Minnesotans a positive experience.

"It's always nice to see a bigger number every year, but if this is a sacrifice to keep people safe, and keep my staff safe, I'm OK with it," she said.

State fair officials say they're looking to come back better and stronger in 2021.

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