New state bill lobbies to reopen county fairs

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people walk up and down the midway at a fair.
The midway at the Canfield Fair in 2019. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

Amid rising COVID-19 cases, Ohio state Sens. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction) and Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster) introduced a bill to loosen regulations on county fairs on Election Day.

The bill, S.B. 375, seeks to void the July 30 order that limited county fairs to junior fair activities. It also declares the act an emergency measure, which means that, if passed, the act would go into effect immediately.

This bill comes after Ohio broke records for the number of daily COVID-19 cases multiple times in recent weeks, most recently on Election Day, with 4,229 new cases.

When asked about the timing of the bill, Schaffer said he wanted to make sure fairs could plan for and have their 2021 season.

“We believe that we can do this whether COVID is cured or not,” he said.

Health

The text of the bill calls the act “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety.” It also says “it is necessary to reopen the state.”

This echoes messages from various legislators and groups in the state over the spring, summer and fall this year.

COVID-19 guidelines and rules have long been a source of tension. Four Ohio House representatives filed articles of impeachment against Gov. Mike DeWine, in August, over the pandemic response.

Howard Call, executive director for the Ohio Fair Managers Association, said the group fully supports the bill. But, he added, the state has largely left local regulation up to local health departments, so even lifting the statewide order would not necessarily mean all fairs could go on next year.

“I’m 72 years old — I’m gonna make a choice whether to go somewhere or not,” Call said. “I think we have to leave it up to the people.”

“When dealing with a pandemic like COVID, part of the challenge is not only to cure it and to rid our society of the virus, but also to get society back to normal,” Schaffer said. “What it affects is how we walk around and interact with everybody at the fair … We need to be cognizant of how we prevent the spread of COVID … we’ve got to use common sense.”

Schaffer said the bill would not affect local health department’s abilities to regulate food safety and other areas of guidelines at the fairs.

DeWine and state health officials have maintained that shutdowns and health guidelines, including the statewide mask order, can help minimize the spread of the disease and save lives. When asked about the bill, a spokesperson for DeWine’s office said the governor opposes proposals to reduce the authority of the health director during the pandemic.

Guidelines and orders

DeWine initially released guidelines for fairs in late May, just weeks before the first fairs in the state. Less than two weeks later, the state released new, less restrictive guidelines.

Fairs operated under those guidelines through June and most of July. Then, in mid-July, DeWine mentioned an outbreak linked to a county fair and called on fairs to follow guidelines more strictly. The order to close senior fairs followed shortly afterwards.

The 2020 Ohio fair season ended in October, with the closing of the Fairfield County Fair Oct. 17. Schaffer said the bill came out of many conversation with fair officials, exhibitors and vendors this year. Fairs, he said, are integral to Ohio’s economic, cultural and social fabric.

Fair officials have expressed concerns that another year under those regulations could make it difficult for fairs to survive.

Support

David Drake, president of the Greater Ohio Showmen’s Association, was glad to see the bill introduced, but, like Call, mentioned concerns about local health regulations.

“If all 88 counties do things differently, we’re still running up against the wall,” Drake said. “You get different interpretations and stands from different health departments.”

Both associations said they were not directly involved in the bill, though Call said the fair managers association has been telling legislators that not having an expiration date on the health order was making it difficult for fairs to plan for the 2021 season.

Drake also mentioned that he has personally called Schaffer’s office — Schaffer is his district representative — and asked for action on fairs and festivals for next year.

Both Schaffer and Hoagland were up for re-election this year. The bill was introduced on Election Day, but bills can be introduced at any time, even in a holdover member’s remaining days, and be treated as if they were introduced on the first day of session. Both sponsors appear to have won their re-election campaigns, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s unofficial results.

Waiting

Both Call and Drake speculated the bill would have support from Ohio legislators — Sen. Larry Obhof and Sen. Bob Peterson have already co-sponsored the bill — but that DeWine may veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.

Schaffer believes the bill has a good chance of passing. When asked about concerns with fairs sticking to health guidelines during the 2020 season, Schaffer said he hadn’t heard of many issues.

“I think fair boards and volunteers managed the risk very well this year,” he said.

Call said the association is watching for action on this bill and on Ohio House Bill 665, which would update fair rules and give fairs more flexibility with how they spend their funding and has been sitting in a Senate committee since July.

It is also hoping for more financial help for fairs. The $50,000 grant for junior fairs this year helped, but some fairs have lost up to and over $1 million between fairs and lost rentals this year.

“I’m concerned about the financial viability of these county fairs being able to survive through the winter,” Call said.

Though the 2020 fair season is over, a bill like this, should it pass, would have immediate implications for fairs and carnivals planning for the 2021 season. This, Schaffer said, is why the bill includes an emergency measure.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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