Shortly after midnight Dec. 18, the Ohio House passed Senate Bill 375, a bill that seeks to void a July 30 health order limiting fairs to junior fairs only.
The bill was introduced on Election Day and has wound its way through the legislature during the lame duck session. Votes and discussions on the bill in the House and Senate have been largely partisan, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it.
In the House session where the bill was passed, Rep. Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield), chair of the agriculture and rural development committee, said the bill was necessary so that fairs could start to plan for next year. He added that having junior fairs only is not financially sustainable for Ohio fairs.
Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland), also a member of the agriculture committee, expressed concern that the bill would set a precedent for overturning public health orders. She said the legislature should be more focused on legislation to address public health concerns and other aspects of the pandemic.
“We are here at — what time is it? It is 12:27 [a.m.] in the middle of a pandemic. We are doing a bill about our county fairs and a desire to void out the public health director’s orders — in the middle of a pandemic,” Brent said. “Everybody, in this pandemic, in the economy, has been affected by it — everyone.”
The bill passed 54-30, with a split along party lines. It goes to Gov. Mike DeWine’s office now. DeWine’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
In House and Senate committee hearings, fair and carnival representatives argued that the future of their fairs and businesses are at stake, that fairs are important for communities and that they have been able to hold events safely in 2020.
David Drake, president of the Greater Ohio Showmen’s Association, and Rodney Arter, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association, both testified in support of the bill, Dec. 16.
Drake said all of the ride companies that work the fair circuit in Ohio are at risk of going out of business if there is not a fair season next year. He also argued that if amusement parks, like Cedar Point and Kings Island, are allowed to open, then amusement companies should be able to operate at fairs and festivals.
Arter reiterated that some fairs are also at risk of going out of business if they have another year like this one. He said fairs need to start planning now for next year. Junior fairs typically depend on revenue from senior fair activities. Without senior fairs, and with some off-season events limited, some are operating at a severe deficit.
The bill was amended several times, first, in the Senate, to remove an emergency clause. The House added a section establishing an Agricultural Society Working Group for 2021. The group would be responsible for coming up with recommendations for fairs and festivals to operate safely next year. It would cease to exist in February 2022.
This year, DeWine established a fair advisory group, comprised of 23 members from fairs, the department of agriculture, current and past legislatures, health departments and other groups, to come up with recommendations for the 2020 season.
The state 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 until the order to close senior fairs came at the end of July.
The working group this bill establishes would include 20-25 representatives from fairs, the legislature, the department of health, Ohio agriculture commodity groups and other organizations.
The bill was introduced in the Senate on Election Day by Sens. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction) and Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster), as Ohio was repeatedly breaking records for the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in a day.
On Election Day, new cases hit 4,229. Since then, cases have continued to climb, with the 21 day reported case average over 10,000, as of Dec. 17.
When asked about the bill in November, a spokesperson for DeWine’s office told Farm and Dairy the governor opposes proposals to reduce the authority of the health director during the pandemic. DeWine and state health officials have maintained that shutdowns and health guidelines and orders can help minimize disease spread and save lives.
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