As Minnesota State Fair returns, have we seen 'peak fair'?

A crowd of people at the fair.
A crowd packs onto the street on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair on in Aug. The fair set a record attendance that year of more than 2.1 million people, capping years of growth. It's unclear when -- or whether -- that growth will resume.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

The Great Minnesota Get Together will start getting together Thursday, in what's shaping up to be the first full-scale state fair since the start of the pandemic.

Before COVID, attendance reached a record in 2019, topping 2.1 million. The fair's growth had become a veritable end-of-summer ritual.

But now — after the fair was canceled in 2020 and returned with pandemic restrictions still in place last year — even fair officials wonder if that growth can resume, as some regular fairgoers are having second thoughts about the tradition.

In other words: Have we already experienced what might be called "peak fair"?

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There are concerns about recent alarming crimes in the Twin Cities, like a fatal shooting during rush hour at a Minneapolis light rail station and two gunfire incidents at the Mall of America. Some people are exhausted by political discord. And others tell MPR News they consider the ongoing risk from COVID to be too great.

Nancy Eicher, a food consultant who lives in Golden Valley, said she loves the fair and doesn't consider herself especially at risk, but has gone out of her way to avoid getting sick. She does go to shows at the Guthrie, and out to dinner with friends. But she's sitting this fair out.

"It's not that I live my life completely risk-free,” she said. “But looking at the fair and how close proximity people are on a crowded day, and you're in and out of buildings, and thinking about masking up to go in and taking your mask off outside — I just decided it wasn't worth it this year.”

Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Fair.
Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 23.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Which doesn't mean there won't be lines for Sweet Martha's cookies starting Thursday. Fair officials say grandstand show ticket sales are brisk this year. Last year's fair, organizers say, may have had about 40 percent fewer visitors than 2019 — but was still one of the biggest public events in the world.

And there's this: one of the biggest jumps ever in fair attendance happened, ironically, after a previous pandemic in the wake of World War II. Attendance doubled after a polio outbreak shut down the fair in 1946.

But there are some countersignals, as well: Despite record low unemployment in Minnesota, Metro Transit ridership is still only about half what it used to be, and that's how nearly half of fairgoers get to the gates — raising questions about whether some people may be uncomfortable about riding crowded buses to reach the fair.

More broadly, Los Angeles-based National Research Group says more than one in 10 moviegoers tell pollsters that they still aren't ready to go back to a theater. And there's this: D.C.-based market-data research firm Morning Consult has been doing weekly surveys of more than 2,000 people throughout the pandemic.

"When you look at it as a whole, there's been a lot of progress since the start, obviously. But there's still two in five Americans saying they are not comfortable going to an amusement park right now," said Morning Consult editor Wesley Case. "There's clearly a ceiling on the public's comfort on social activities."

Polarized public

Some experts are even pondering the nature not just of social activities, but of the general public in America right now.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the books "Bowling Alone" and most recently "The Upswing," both studies on social capital, says Americans are in a decidedly non-communal frame of mind following the elections of 2016 and 2020.

"Statistically I say, in 'The Upswing,' America is now polarized more than it has been ever in American history, with the possible — but I emphasize possible — exception of 1860 to '65," he said. "I'm not saying we're going to have a breakout civil war in the next two weeks. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying we're in almost uncharted territory. The whole country is. So Minnesota is, of course. How can Minnesota be immune from that?"

Riders reach the end of the giant slide.
Riders throw their arms in the air as they near the end of the Giant Slide at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 1.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

The Minnesota State Fair, by the way, has shrunk in times of social strife before. Attendance fell nearly 10 percent in the four years following the national turmoil of 1968.

And this is a very different Minnesota than in 1968: much bigger, and much more diverse.

Catherine Squires, the just-retired associate dean of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, says the killing of George Floyd, the mass shooting of Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, have left communities of color with a heightened sense of unease.

Like Putnam, she doesn't anticipate a tragedy at the fair — which does have metal detectors at the gates.

But Squires says most people don't appreciate the breadth of anxiety about simple safety in public.

"If we brought in our sense of, what does public safety mean? And how does it actually feel? And who is left out of my sense of public safety? I think that gets us into different conversations about what it means to have a Minnesota gathering, and what does it mean to be safe in public, or feel more secure, or feel at home? And I don't think we're having those conversations very much," she said.

And she says she thinks COVID has put people even more on edge.

"That's a really jarring thing to have happened on a mass scale," Squires said.

‘The fair is their happy place’

Still, hundreds of thousands of people will stream through the fair's gates this year. It isn't going away.

Fair organizers say they think high gas prices and inflation pressures may actually get more people to the fair, as it's a relatively inexpensive entry — $17 per person this year, less for kids and seniors — and an affordable alternative to out-of-state trips.

And fair manager Jerry Hammer thinks people come to the fair for refuge.

The Great Minnesota Get-Together
Visitors fill the streets at the Minnesota State Fair in Aug.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News 2011

"The fair has always been the place, where whatever is going on outside, you leave it out there," he said. "We hear it again and again and again, and it doesn't matter where we're hearing it from. It's people from all over — every place. The fair — this is what they say, I've heard it a lot — the fair is their happy place."

He also says the fair has worked hard to keep it that way — for instance, doubling the public safety budget since 2019, from $2 million to $4 million annually.

But Hammer also concedes the fair isn't just for Minnesota. It's of Minnesota, and there's no getting away from the worries that weigh on so many minds, from now three shopping mall gunfire incidents in eight months to the handful of COVID deaths the state still records every week.

They're legitimate worries, Hammer says, and he won't be surprised if some of those two million visitors from previous years stay home — at least for now.

"That's happening in, right now, at least two broad directions. People are not comfortable about their public safety, and they're not going to go anywhere. And also with COVID," he said. "Those two things will matter to some people, and since our audience is everybody, we don't expect those numbers."

But, Hammer says, they'll be welcome back when they're ready.