CORONAVIRUS

Now playing at Iowa county fairs: The waiting game

Summertime staples deciding how to deal with coronavirus

The beef cow and calf barn are seen Wednesday through the open entrance to the beef barn at the Linn County Fairgrounds
The beef cow and calf barn are seen Wednesday through the open entrance to the beef barn at the Linn County Fairgrounds in Central City. Grounds and grandstand entertainment have been canceled this year because of concerns over the coronavirus, while fair leadership is working with 4-H and FFA to determine how to proceed with exhibits. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
/

CEDAR RAPIDS — Getting your hands on some fried food on a stick is going to be a little more difficult this summer for Iowans.

With the COVID-19 pandemic imposing restrictions on life in the state, county fair organizers across Iowa are trying to decide if they should cancel, go virtual or wait and see if restrictions lift and their events can go on in a relatively normal manner.

One thing seems to be for certain: The fair experience won’t quite be the same this year.

“It’ll be different,” said John Harms, general manager for the Great Jones County Fair, known for attracting popular musical acts. “I can tell you that.”

Iowa is home to 106 county and district fairs, as well as the Iowa State Fair, according to the Association of Iowa Fairs. Those fairs are scheduled to begin June 17 with the Worth County Fair and continue through Sept. 20 with the conclusion of the National Cattle Congress in Black Hawk County.

Those early fairs already are beginning to announce decisions about their events. Organizers of the Wapello County Fair announced they are canceling for this year. On Thursday, the Linn County Fair Association announced it is canceling grounds and grandstand entertainment with plans to take the exhibition aspects of the fair online.

Linn County Fair Marketing Manager Heidi Steffen said the association met with county public health and Board of Supervisors officials in recent weeks. The focus of those discussions was on ensuring the safety of all fair exhibitors, workers, performers and visitors, Steffen said.

“We just couldn’t guarantee that,” she said.

Steffen was quick to point out the fair isn’t canceled — it’s just taking on a different form. The fair is scheduled for June 24-28.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The fair association is working with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach of Linn County and Linn County 4-H to ensure 4-H and National FFA Organization members get a chance to exhibit their livestock and projects. Details on what that will look like are expected later this month.

Fair association members have been attending webinars and learning from other fairs across the country that have gone virtual. Steffen said they’ve received valuable suggestions and feedback.

“It’s been done,” she said. “We can learn from their mistakes. We can learn what went well with them and hopefully implement it here in Linn County.”

Steffen said they are already kicking around other ideas to engage the community during fair week, just in a virtual manner. Those ideas include livestreaming pie-eating contests, encouraging local businesses to offer fair foods on their menus and seeing if local artists who had been scheduled to perform at the fair would be interested in online performances instead.

“We’re open to ideas,” she said, encouraging anyone with suggestions to reach out via email or Facebook.

Up the road in Jones County, organizers there have a little more time to decide how to move forward. For now, Harms is confident that fair will go on July 22-26.

“We’re still going to have a fair,” he said. “It may look differently than what we have experienced and enjoyed in the past.”

How exactly it may look different still is up in the air. Harms said plans “a, b, c and d are all being studied.” At least one grandstand act, the Zac Brown Band, won’t be performing. But Harms said organizers have other acts they’re ready to announce “if it makes sense to have entertainment at the fair.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Whatever takes place likely will be determined by proclamations covering social distancing made by Gov. Kim Reynolds, Harms said. He said the fair’s planning process has been dictated by her health orders.

“We’re just trying to keep everything on the table and make sensible decisions and directions based on what’s going on,” he said. “It’s going to be challenging, but I think for the most part we’ll take a deep breath, have a little more faith and we’ll get through it.”

Tim Rogers, vice president for the Johnson County Fair Board, said the decision whether to have a fair will be made in the next 40-plus days.

“That’s kind of a deadline we’ve set to either call it completely, proceed fully or proceed with what we can do and still stay in compliance with all of the laws,” he said.

The Johnson County Fair Board will discuss what a partial fair might look like once that decision has been made, Rogers said.

Tom Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs, said his group is providing resources to fair organizers, but is not making any recommendations on whether to proceed.

“We’re asking them to be fiscally responsible for their fair,” he said. “We don’t ask them to cancel. We don’t ask them to go ahead with their fair. They know better what they can do and not do.”

Barnes said fair organizers should be asking themselves: If your fair is open, will people buy tickets? And, if they come, will they buy food and beverages?

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

As long as they make good financial decisions, Barnes said, he believes county fairs have the resources to weather the COVID-19 storm and return in 2021.

“We’ll be back next year if the fairs don’t go ahead,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.