116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Grab your funnel cake, midway tickets and something deep-fried on a stick. County fairs are back.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a devastating year for fairs across Iowa. Of Iowa’s 106 county and district fairs and the Iowa State Fair, 84 of them didn’t take place last year, said Tom Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs.
“Mentally, it’s a big thing,” Barnes said of the loss of fairs and loss of income for the communities and organizations hosting those events. “It was a hard pill to swallow.”
With more people being vaccinated and COVID-19 precautions lifting, Barnes said fair organizers are ready to “get back into some normalcy.” The Iowa State Fair — which canceled last year for the first time since World War II — will be back this summer, along with county fairs.
“Everybody is pretty excited,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
But don’t call it a comeback for some county fairs. While COVID-19 made traditional county fairs difficult or impractical last year, some local organizers still put on modified events to give kids in 4-H or the National FFA Organization a chance to showcase their livestock or exhibits or to give the public some semblance of the fair — even if just online.
John Harms, general manager for the Great Jones County Fair, said organizers took their typical five-day event and stretched it to nine. Harms said they eliminated the concerts that typically draw visitors from across the region, as well as the carnival. Instead, the focus was on spreading out livestock exhibitions and similar events to have fewer people on the fairgrounds while still giving children an opportunity to show their projects.
“It was all geared for youth development,” Harms said. “We still could have a fair that was totally centered on youth and youth development.”
By diluting the crowds and showing one form of livestock in the morning and another in the afternoon instead of two or three at the same time, the fair was “a very comfortable, effective and safe environment,” Harms said. Families were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the setup and there were no known cases of COVID-19 linked to the fair, Harms said.
“It was personally rewarding for me,” Harms said. “I got to see most of it. Most of the time, I miss 90 percent of the fair.”
Michael Leick, manager of the Johnson County Fairgrounds, said organizers there put on a “show and go fair” last year. Children could come to show their projects and animals, but no members of the public were allowed and each individual event was held separately.
“That went really well,” Leick said, who added that lessons learned from that experience will be implemented at this year’s fair.
In Linn County, the organizers announced last spring that the 2020 fair would be virtual. Heidi Steffen, co-vice president and marketing and website manager for the fair, said they hosted online contests, posted videos of 4-H participants reciting the 4-H pledge and had videos of exhibitors discussing how they prepare their livestock.
“It was actually good to be able to show that side of the fair,” Steffen said.
There were also entertainment events, such as an acoustic music set and pro wrestling, hosted over Facebook.
“It was packed, as far as having different things throughout the day,” Steffen said. “I think the people that did partake … they said it was great. They could still feel like they were a part of it.”
But now organizers are ready to welcome fairgoers back to the grounds. That said, there will still be precautions.
Steffen said they’ll space out their carnival activities and other entertainment to allow for more social distancing. A drive-in concert is planned to allow live entertainment in a safe manner.
“Everyone is really excited,” she said. “I think the basics will be the same. We’re still finalizing the fun, open contests we do daily.”
Harms said the Great Jones County Fair hasn’t finalized all of its precautions, noting that public health guidelines continue to evolve. Tickets are on sale for grandstand acts such as Zac Brown Band and Dan + Shay.
“Public safety has always been a major concern for all fairs and festivals across the state and country,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. … We can all look back and say, ’This worked. This didn’t work.’ That’s what we do in a normal year. We just have another element out there to deal with.”
Leick at the Johnson County Fairgrounds said the “old format” of the fair will return with some modifications, such as having more events outdoors instead of inside. As a nonprofit fair, organizers are looking forward to a return to the events they need to maintain their annual budget, Leick said.
“We’re just very excited to be returning to our fair this year,” he said. “We’ve heard from a number of people that they were hoping we’d have our full, traditional fair this year.”
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