State Fair won't mandate masks, receives pushback

The Minnesota Council on Disability tells its members not to attend

Crowds fill the streets on the second day.
Crowds fill the streets on the second day of the Minnesota State Fair in 2016.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2016

Updated: 5:00 p.m.

There will be no universal mask mandate at the Minnesota State Fair, which begins next week.

Instead, fair officials are urging both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors while at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. People are also urged to mask up outdoors in crowded settings, especially those who have not yet been vaccinated.

Organizers say fairgoers should also comply with individual vendors who request them to wear a mask.

This comes as Minnesota health officials reported the highest number of patients hospitalized with COVID since mid-May.

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“Mandating masks fairgrounds-wide would be extremely difficult for our organization to enforce, so we are urging you to pitch in and do what’s right,” said fair health guidance updated on Wednesday.

Masks will be required, regardless of vaccine status, in the Care & Assistance and First Aid buildings and the North End Event Center where COVID-19 vaccinations and opportunities to donate blood will be available.

Fair officials say masks will be required for unvaccinated people wishing to ride fair trolleys.

Organizers say they will provide masks at the gates for those who want one. 

The new guidelines are short of what has started to appear at other institutions, including proof of vaccination at entertainment venues and new mask mandates in schools.

Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said that the huge crowds that show up make enforcement impractical. But he said fairgoers need to understand that their decisions won’t just affect their own health.

“If you look at our guidelines, we’re asking people to do the right thing. We’re talking about now, but we’re also talking about the future of the fair” Hammer said. “We need to do this right. We have been out of business one year, and we can’t mess this up this year.”

Fair officials are also urging people to think of attending at non-peak times — like during weekdays — to try and avoid at least some crowding at the fair.

Hammer said the fair has added a new attendance advisory system for fairgoers who want to go, but avoid the densest crowds.

“It’s called a Gopher Gauge,” said Hammer. “When it’s least busy — one Gopher. If it’s moderate — two gophers. If it’s three gophers, you might want to give it a second thought if you don’t want to go into a busier or more crowded environment.”

Hammer also brought up a worker shortage in explaining the policies.

“We’re having enough of a time finding people to do the fun jobs at the fair to find what would be hundreds to do an effective mandate — is just something that’s not going to happen, can’t,” he said.

Pushback on the fair

The Minnesota Council on Disability released a letter last week urging members not to attend the fair this year, despite it being their biggest community programming event.

David Dively, the Council on Disability’s executive director, says that the fair’s COVID-19 policy reflects larger societal problems that create barriers for people with disabilities.

“This is really a place where we want everyone to come together — literally, it's in the kind of slogan: Everyone come and get together and celebrate the state and all of its diversity,” Dively said. “But the policies that we're putting in place, or in this case, lack of policies, is really excluding many people from participating in what we consider to be, you know, one of our great Minnesota — parts of our pride of our state.”

Dively says the fair’s policy is going in the right direction but still needs to take the next step and require masks and vaccines to be more inclusive for high-risk communities.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health recommend wearing a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status, in areas of substantial or high transmission. In Minnesota, that applies to more than 30 counties, including the Twin Cities metro area where the Minnesota State Fair takes place.

Reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this story.