The hallmarks of late-summer fun abound at this year's Minnesota State Fair: the Ferris wheel, the sheep and horses and cows, more food than anyone could eat.
Fairgoers, however, have been more hesitant to get together in 2021.
Attendance, way down on the opening weekend amid foul weather and ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, is just now starting to pick up. But many at the fairgrounds Wednesday said the less-crowded start is not all bad.
Fewer people makes for a more enjoyable experience for those who do come, said Greta Miller, owner of Miller's Cheese Curds, who described business as steady.
"This is amazing. We're here, we're open, we're happy," she said. "I guess that's all that matters."
The Minnesota State Fair's goal is to get people to come, enjoy themselves and have a safe, fun experience, said spokeswoman Danielle Dullinger.
"We're never looking to break attendance records," she said. "That's never our goal, especially this year."
But lower attendance can have a financial impact. That can be hard to quantify based solely on the number of people who come through the gates, Dullinger said.
"We don't know what people are going to spend once they get inside," she said.
Fair attendance this year started off low — total attendance for the first two days was less than half that in the same time period in 2019 — and fair officials say weather was likely a factor.
Numbers have picked up as the weather changed from gray and stormy to sunny and pleasant. Monday, for example, saw 91,568 attendees, just 5,000 short of 2019's figure for the same day.
Krisha Rana, part of a crew emptying trash cans, said she's noticed it getting busier this week, particularly after dark.
Still, Dullinger admitted that finances are — and will continue to be — tight for the fair, which took a $16 million hit in 2020 when the event was canceled due to COVID-19.
The grounds needed maintenance and water and electric bills came due. The fair has a full-time staff of 80 people to pay, she said.
"We have bills just like everyone else would have in a year," she said.
The fair isn't state funded but operates via revenue from ticket sales. Merchandise vendors pay a flat fee, while the fair receives a percentage of food sales, she said.
Daniel Winfield, manager of Fab Brows, which has a booth selling makeup in the Grandstand, said the Minnesota State Fair has been the busiest among the fairs he's attended this year.
"Yes, we're down a little bit compared to 2019 but overall we're doing really well with everything that's been going on," he said. "This is more than OK."
At the Demetri's Fine Greek Food stand, Alex Ramirez said customers and employees both are happy to be at the fair.
"Business is OK but not like it used to be," said Ramirez, who has worked there for 18 years.
At the state Department of Natural Resources Building, "people are a little disappointed" that no one is allowed inside this year, said Colleen Coyne, assistant administrator of the communication office. But no one has been angry, she said, and visitors can still see bird shows and live music on the DNR stages.
"We're providing an outdoor experience, which is appropriate for our agency," Coyne said.
Some people showing animals noted emptier barns this year for a variety of reasons.
In the sheep barn, Tony Herrera, owner of Benton Creek Farm in Cologne, Minn., noted that the barn is just 60% full. He attributed it to fewer premiums, or monetary prizes, being awarded by the fair this year. It takes a lot of time and money to come to the fair, he said.
Herrera turned up, he said, just as he has almost every year since 1985, to show his Southdown sheep, which are bred for meat. His son won a first-place ribbon for a 7-month-old ewe in the 4-H division Friday.
"It's tradition and competition," he said. "People want to compete."
Few people interviewed at the fairgrounds Wednesday mentioned worries about COVID-19 transmission. Dullinger said the fair is "strongly, strongly urging" people to wear masks indoors and when social distancing isn't possible.
Nick Anderson of Burnsville said the fair felt "about the same to me, just less people."
The main difference, he said, was that he washed his hands more and kept some distance from other people.
Marty and Barbara Blosser were visiting their grandchildren in Richfield and came to the fair for the first time.
"This one is fantastic — the food, the rides, the people," Barbara Blosser said.
Chris White traveled from Leech Lake to take his four kids to the fair. It seemed about half as busy as in years past, he said.
The kids are crazy about the rides, he said: "They're loving it."