Decisions On Iowa County Fairs Loom Amidst Pandemic

Instead of spending the month of May finalizing exhibitors and event schedules, county fair organizers are making decisions about whether to punt their 2020 fair to 2021.

Last week, the Wapello County Fair Board in southeast Iowa announced it will be postponing its fair for the first time since World War II. The decision was announced after numerous conversations with state and local officials, along with guidance from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions and the Association of Iowa Fairs.

“It really came down to our concern as a fair board with the safety of our fair-goers and volunteers,” said Fred Jenkins, a member of the Wapello County Fair Board. “We weren’t sure what the requirements would be and quite honestly, the case load down here (in Wapello County) is still increasing. We didn’t feel like we could provide safety to our attendees and our fair volunteers, many who are over 60 years old.”

Wapello County has experienced a recent spike in coronavirus cases, totaling 259 as of Monday.

Jenkins says the fair typically attracts a few thousand attendees each year, and they didn’t want the Wapello County Fair to be the reason COVID-19 spread. This will be the third time the Wapello County Fair hasn’t been held, with the last two cancellations coming during World War I and II when the fairgrounds in Eldon were being used by the military.

Jenkins said the 28-member Wapello County Fair Board voted unanimously to postpone until 2021. Refunds are available and the fair is trying to rebook the same artists for 2021 so tickets that were already purchased can be used next year.

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“Ottumwa and Wapello County have been fairly fortunate,” Jenkins says. “Cases are still going up but we are not in the 22 counties with the high rates. And with the fair, we didn’t want to create a place for that disease to spread.”

More Decisions Expected This Week

Wapello County was the third fair to be postponed to 2021, along with the Linn and Benton County Fairs.

Tom Barnes, Executive Director of the Association of Iowa Fairs, says local fair boards have two main concerns — in addition to the safety of their volunteers, fair-goers and exhibitors.

“An underlying thing that we are concerned with is liability, what is our risk? And secondly, what financial hit will we have?” Barnes says.

As of May 10, all other Iowa county fairs and the Iowa State Fair are planning on hosting their 2020 fair. Barnes says he expects other fairs to make announcements this week, specifically fairs that are held in June.

He’s an organizer of the Howard County Fair in northeast Iowa and said they are planning to make a decision on the fair this week.

“We are hearing the social gatherings and sanitizing will be with us for a long time,” Barnes said. “But controlling social distancing at a county fair is going to be difficult. And if the state still has attendance limits, that could eliminate fairs from happening this year.”

Barnes says he participates in weekly Zoom meetings with executive directors of other states to hear what they are doing and will then share that information with local county fair leaders.

“I never thought I’d use Zoom so much,” Barnes says laughing. “Fairs will be back, it’s just our communities right now that we need to help.”


by Joey Aguirre
Posted 5/11/20

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