County fair organizers across Minnesota face tough decisions

Horse judging
4-H participants are judged at the Washington County Fair in Lake Elmo in 2010.
Nikki Tundel | MPR 2010

The Washington County Fair in Lake Elmo is a much-anticipated annual tradition for 18-year-old Gillian Haveman of Hastings. 

“The fair’s kind of a big deal for me since I was home-schooled, so that’s kinda my favorite week of the summer,” said the Minnesota 4-H state ambassador. “It’s a week where I just get to spend time with my friends. Not only that, but I work really hard throughout the year to come up with 4-H projects that I enter.”

But there won’t be a Washington County Fair this summer. Or a Freeborn County Fair in southern Minnesota. So far, about 1 in 3 Minnesota county fairs have been canceled for this summer, with more expected to follow in the wake of last week’s cancellation of the Minnesota State Fair.

While 4-H is working on alternative ways for members to present projects at both county and state levels, compared with a chance to eat fair food with her friends and visiting relatives, Haveman said, it just won’t be the same.

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Organizers of fairs that have not yet called off plans for 2020 are trying to decide whether they can hold their events safely. Those decisions have huge ripple effects for local businesses, fundraisers, and family traditions. 

Exchange-Fair Judge
Dairy cattle judge John Schroeder talks with Emma Appel, 7, as she shows her cow Jewel with her aunt Theresa at the Blue Earth County Fair in July 2018 in Garden City, Minn.
Pat Christman | The Free Press via AP 2018

County fairs and other festivals scheduled later in the summer have a bit more time to decide. The Cannon Valley Fair in Cannon Falls, Minn., is scheduled to start July 1. Secretary Stacy Kurtz says the board must make its final decision by June 1 to allow organizers of events like the demo derby time to prepare. 

With 4-H participants barred from in-person activities at least until the day before the fair starts, they’re facing a fair potentially without livestock. The carnival still is sheltering in Louisiana. 

Kurtz said the board is weighing the pros and cons. 

“We’re looking at the cons to it as, ‘What if we have an outbreak and they say they’ve been at our fair?’ We don’t want that negative publicity,” she said.

While the State Fair has been canceled in the past — most recently for a polio epidemic in 1946 — some county fairs haven't had a year off since the late 1800s. That’s the case for the Mower County Fair in southern Minnesota, which typically draws 100,000 people over five days. Fair president Kevin Finley said they're on track to open Aug. 11.

"You know, we just feel that, if people are responsible, make some of the right decisions, we’re gonna be fine. I mean, nobody knows what August is gonna bring, but at this point, our fair’s gonna move forward,” he said.

Finley said fair-goers will be spread out in the open air, with plenty of hand-washing stations. 

"By no stretch are we forcing somebody to go there. But as we talk to our sponsors, we talk to our vendors, we talk to other individuals, [they’re saying] amen. Absolutely. We need to get our community going again. That’s a choice people should be able to make,” he said.

Olmsted County Fair
The Olmsted County Fair in Rochester, Minn., seen in 2010.
Photo by Chad Johnson

It’s up to each fair board to make its own decision about whether and how it will gather safely. As president of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, Steve Storck has been in an endless stream of Zoom meetings with local officials. In addition to social distancing and other health measures, he said, county fairs need to make sure they can afford to run a smaller fair. 

"We’ve asked fairs to, you know, sit down with your budget and say, ‘OK, if we have a fair, this is our normal. If we have a fair that’s only half — are we going to be able to survive this, or are we better off just not having a fair, [to] totally skip the year, and be able to come back in 2021 good and strong?’ Hopefully everything will be back to normal come that time,” he said.

Part of the challenge in a time of social distancing is that fairs are designed to draw a crowd. Nowhere is that more true than the midway, with its rides and games and that enticing smell of fried dough.

Greg Hughes and his wife own Family Fun Shows, a traveling carnival based in Mankato that runs throughout Minnesota.

Hughes said they can put extra safety measures in place, like spreading out the equipment, running rides at half capacity, and providing wipes and hand sanitizer, "but to be able to go out and police people (on social distancing), would be impossible for show owners to do — and then still take care of the equipment the way you need, to pay attention to the equipment with the people on it."

Hughes said all his planned festivals have been canceled through about the third week of July. As for county fairs later in the summer, Hughes said, he’s waiting until they get closer to review the latest health data. As with everyone involved in a county fair this summer, he’ll have to weigh the health risk versus the rewards of continuing a fair tradition close to the hearts of many Minnesotans. 

“We have chosen here to wait for the data that’s closer to the time,” Hughes said, “which honestly, I still feel is pretty much out on the edge. If it’s a hard decision for me, I’m easily going to decide to stay home. I will do some fishing for once. [Running a traveling carnival,] the only fishing I’ve done in the last 40 years has been ice fishing.”