Ohio fair leaders are one of the latest groups to criticize how Gov. Mike DeWine is handling the state’s reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As time starts to run out for some fairs, with the first ones scheduled to begin in mid-June, fair leaders say they still have received no official rules from the state, forcing some to make decisions without the guidance they were hoping for.
A fair advisory group, formed by DeWine, gave DeWine their recommendations for fairs this year May 15. A week later, May 22, DeWine had not done anything with them.
Howard Call, executive director for the Ohio Fair Managers Association and a member of the fair advisory group, said after the group sent its recommendations to May 15, members thought DeWine’s rules for fairs would be announced the following Monday, May 18. They weren’t. Then, the group anticipated an announcement May 21. No announcement came.
Now, Call and other members of the group don’t know when the state will offer guidance.
In the meantime, several have canceled all or part of their fairs, due to health and financial concerns. Heather Cooper, secretary of the Paulding County Fair, which canceled earlier this month, told Farm and Dairy May 12 that despite being four weeks out, the fair had received no guidance from the state.
The Ohio State Fair was the latest casualty, May 21.
“We’re terribly disappointed that the governor has put the Ohio State Fair and general manager Virgil Strickler in this position by not rolling out the fair task force’s [recommendations] that we worked on very hard, that he’s had for a week now,” Call told Farm and Dairy May 22.
Strickler, general manager for the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair, told Farm and Dairy that financially, it would have been difficult — if not impossible — to hold the fair, which was scheduled for July 29-Aug. 9, this year.
Last year, nearly 1 million people attended the state fair. Some surveys suggested that attendance could be down by 30-40% this year, Strickler said.
Concerts could be challenging to pay for, with social distancing guidelines likely to limit the number of tickets the fair could sell. The carnival that the fair hires had already lost other fairs on its route, and would have had a hard time financially getting to the Ohio State Fair.
The health risks are no small consideration, either.
“I don’t want anybody to ever get sick coming to our place,” Strickler said.
Many fair attendees and fair workers and volunteers are in high-risk groups, being 55 and older. Strickler doesn’t doubt that some volunteers and workers for the fair would have had to stay home this year.
“I’m just asking everybody to understand that it had to go this direction,” Strickler said. Next year, “hopefully, everything will be just fine.”
The commission is now focused on planning for the 2021 fair, which is scheduled for July 28 through Aug. 8.
In a Facebook post, the state fair noted that it plans to celebrate agriculture from a distance this year, through online content and social media.
In an email to Farm and Dairy, fair spokesperson Alicia Shoults said the fair has discussed virtual options for things like shows, sales and non-livestock project judging, but is still working through those options and is also discussing options with Ohio 4-H. The fair plans to share more information about its plans for digital content in the coming weeks.
“I’m gonna look at everything that’s possible, and then decide,” Strickler said.
Callie Finnegan, 11, a Lorain County 4-H’er, was planning to show her horses at the state fair for the fourth time this year. But while she is disappointed, she isn’t surprised.
“I expected it to happen,” she said.
Shanna Finnegan, Callie’s mother, wasn’t surprised either, although she had hoped that the fair might be able to work out a way to have junior fair events.
“But I absolutely understand these fairs need to have revenue to have the junior part,” Shanna Finnegan said.
Callie has been doing some virtual horse shows, since the 4-H horse shows that usually happen in spring and early summer have moved online. She is also throwing herself into preparing her horses and market hogs for her county fair, which isn’t until the end of August.
She’s hoping it won’t get canceled — her favorite parts of the fair are showing and walking around with her friends, and virtual shows just aren’t the same. But she does have backup plans for selling her market hogs, since one of her family member’s owns a processing plant.
Call said the state fair’s decision may influence county fairs to make decisions as well. There are five Ohio fairs in June. Two have already canceled in some capacity. Like the state fair, these fairs are facing both health and financial uncertainties.
Some are already working with their health departments to come up with their own alternate plans, since the state hasn’t yet given an order, Call said.
Strickler hopes things can be different for some of the county fairs, since they don’t have as many attendees from as many different areas as the state fair. He was happy with DeWine’s decision to put together the fair advisory group, which he was also on, but hopes decisions will be made soon.
“I think that the task force has done a good job,” Strickler said. “Now all [the state] has to do is take some time to look over all [the recommendations] and make some decisions for the counties.”
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