Pickaway Co. lashes out at report alleging COVID-19 outbreak, as more fairs cancel

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The midway at the Canfield Fair.
The Canfield Fair cut back to a junior fair only for this year in early July. Several other Ohio fairs have also been modifying their plans over the past week in response to statewide concerns about the pandemic. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — Pickaway County Fair Board members say a report from Pickaway County Public Health that linked some COVID-19 cases to the fair was too harsh and has led other fairs in the state to cancel.

They demanded a retraction of the after action report, in a July 27 meeting with the health district and other officials.

“You threw us completely under the bus,” said Von Cremeans, fair board president.

Health officials, however, said multiple agreed upon requirements were not met.

Media reports broke the news of the district’s review July 23, before fair officials say they were able to review it.

At the meeting, fair board members said they felt singled out.

“You held the biggest event we’ve had in Pickaway County. You’re going to be singled out,” said Susan Foster, the health district’s director of clinical services.

This meeting came less than a week after Gov. Mike DeWine pointed the finger at early Ohio fairs and announced a statewide mask mandate in a July 22 press conference. He called on Ohio fairs to do a better job of sticking to state guidelines, or risk shutdowns.

“We do not want to be in a position … to close fairs,” he said. “Everybody is going to have to own their own fair.”

Since that press conference, and since the Pickaway County report came out, other fairs in Ohio have modified their plans for 2020, some completely canceling their senior fairs, under guidance from local health departments.

Pickaway

In the report, Pickaway County Public Health said the fair board did not stick to requirements set in a June 4 planning meeting with the health district and other officials.

It said 19 people who tested positive in the county had been to the fair, and an additional three were related to someone who had been to the fair. The fair had just under 22,000 attendees, Cremeans said at the meeting.

Foster said that the link does not mean the cases were contracted at the fair — it just means people who tested positive had attended the fair and may have affected other people.

Communication

The fair board said that the report was not presented to them before members of the media got a hold of it. Foster said under sunshine laws, media are allowed to request copies of reports like this one, though the district had intended to discuss the report with the fair board before it became public.

“It was an honest mistake,” she said.

“It is a mistake that is costing this fairgrounds a lot,” Cremeans said. “They are canceling fairs all over this state today because of this report, and this report is too harsh.”

Communication during the fair was not smooth, either. The fair board complained that health district representatives weren’t at the fair enough and didn’t try hard enough to contact them with concerns. The health district officials said they were at the fair several times throughout the work and attempted to contact board members through emails, texts and phone calls.

Issues

Foster said that at the fair, she saw fair staff and volunteers not wearing masks or using hand sanitizer between customers at entrances. Health officials also said bleachers were opened for livestock shows. Both of these things went against what fair and local health officials discussed.

The fair board noted one incident where a food vendor was not wearing masks, but said that the board addressed the issue after the health district brought it to their attention.

Foster said while the fair board did correct some issues, there were other issues that were not corrected.

Wording

The fair board and county commissioners argued in the meeting that the report’s wording was too harsh and did not include enough information about the good things that the board did. They demanded a retraction and a public acknowledgement of what the board did well.

“We’re not here trying to rake you over the coals,” Mike Wolford, president of the district’s board of health, told the fair board. “There was issues that need to be improved. We hope we can work together and get them improved.”

Representatives from the Ohio Fair Managers Association and the Greater Ohio Showmen’s Association said the report was impacting other fairs and the rides industry.

“We are going through a global pandemic,” Foster said. “That’s why we’re doing after action reports for big events like this.”

Statewide concerns

Pickaway County is not the only county under scrutiny. In his press conference, DeWine said some fairs have not followed rules about social distancing.

From some fairs already held, pictures of crowds and grandstands filled with people, few wearing masks, have made their way around social media.

“It’s just a tough thing to charge people to get into your place and then tell them they can’t do something,” Rodney Arter, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association and member of the Hartford Fair Board, told Farm and Dairy.

DeWine held a conference call July 22 with fair leaders across the state to discuss these issues.

“His main concerns were some of these full fairs,” Arter said. “He didn’t think that the grandstands were social-distanced as much as he would like, and there’s probably no doubt about that.”

“We want these fairs to continue, but they have to follow the rules,” DeWine said in his press conference.

Arter said his fair has been making plans based on the guidelines released in June.

“But that being said, the message from the health department has changed in the last week,” he said. “Our health department was just on board with our plan and everything, and now [the department’s] got some doubts.”

Arter said it’s hard to predict whether more fairs will cancel.

“It really gets down to every health department — and the governor made that clear. The health department’s in charge,” he said.

New mandate

In addition to following the statewide rules, fairs also need to follow any guidelines from their local health departments. Under the new mask mandate, people at the fairgrounds will need to wear masks, unless they are outside and able to socially distance.

“The evidence is just abundantly clear … masks work,” DeWine said.

Arter noted that he has seen few masks at fairs that he’s visited so far.

“We all know there’s people that just won’t wear a mask,” Arter said. “Some people will not come if they have to wear a mask.”

Cancellations

In the days after DeWine’s press conference, several more county fairs canceled some or all senior fair events.

The Holmes County Fair Board announced July 23 that it would cancel all grandstand events for this year, out of concerns about maintaining social distancing.

Knox Public Health announced the same day that health commissioner Julie Miller, with input from the fair board and other county officials, was canceling the senior fair for Knox County, though there will still be a junior fair and harness racing.

The Wayne County Fair also announced some changes in a July 26 post, including canceling all main ticket grandstand events and open class still exhibits and livestock, with the exception of harness racing, horse pulling and hitch classes and the truck and tractor pull.

There will be no rides. Concessions, games and commercial exhibits will be scaled down. The board is still planning a full junior fair.

The Medina County Fair canceled its senior fair July 27, but is still planning a junior fair.

The Greene County Fair announced July 27 that it will be a junior fair only due to restrictions from the health department. The same day, the Lorain County Fair Board voted to hold a junior fair only.

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