The Minnesota State Fair board will discuss Friday whether to cancel the hugely popular annual event for only the sixth time in its history, going back to before the Civil War.
Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer didn’t return phone calls or e-mails Thursday. A fair spokeswoman confirmed that a video meeting would occur, but declined to say whether a decision would be made on holding the fair.
Stephanie Olson, owner of the Blue Moon Dine-in Theater, said vendors can adapt to unpredictable circumstances and she hopes the board doesn’t make a decision it later regrets.
“We’re Minnesotans,” she said. “We deal with unknowns all the time. We go into every fair hoping we’ll have 10 days of great weather, but you never know.”
The signs from the State Capitol haven’t been promising for fans of the State Fair, an annual 12-day tradition culminating on Labor Day that pulls in more than 2 million visitors. Enduring the heavy crowds has been a point of pride about going to the fair, long before anyone ever heard of social distancing.
Asked about the fair at her daily news conference Thursday, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state should be past the projected July peak of the COVID-19 outbreak by the time the fair is slated to start Aug. 27.
Unfortunately, Malcolm said, that won’t be the end of the pandemic. The fair could stir up “a great deal of community spread and great risk of transmission,” she said.
Gov. Tim Walz was similarly skeptical a month ago, saying that proceeding with the fair this year would be a “tough lift” and adding: “I don’t know how you social distance in there.”
The State Fair is run not by the state but by the Minnesota Agricultural Society and representatives from the state’s 87 counties and from statewide associations.
The fair hasn’t been canceled since the polio epidemic in 1946. It shut down three times for wars and once, in 1893, when the World’s Fair was held in Chicago.
A month ago, Hammer said this year’s State Fair would be all or nothing — that it wouldn’t be held as a scaled-back event with temperature checks at the gates. He also said a decision wouldn’t be made until necessary.
Since then, several county fairs in the state, including that of Freeborn County, have been canceled. Those events host the livestock competitions where youths qualify for the State Fair.
The North Dakota State Fair in Minot was recently canceled, as was the popular Red River Valley Fair in West Fargo. Several large state fairs appear to be in doubt; leaders in Illinois and New York have said it’s unlikely those fairs would be held this year.
Wisconsin officials expect to make a decision on their fair, which is scheduled to open Aug. 6, by the end of the month. The Iowa State Fair, scheduled for Aug. 13, also remains an open question.
Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of the Blue Barn restaurant in the State Fair’s West End, said she has a hunch the Minnesota fair won’t happen, judging from Walz’s past statements.
“We just want guidance so we can adjust plans,” Shimp said, adding that, like other vendors, she’s juggling the pandemic’s hit on her year-round adjacent business. She’s under pressure from suppliers to place necessary food orders.
“We’ve already paid for job fairs. We have staff doing [weekly] meetings,” she said.
Blue Barn also needs to start brewing beer for the new specialty beverage program, she said, and that takes three to six weeks per batch.
Hammer has said before that health concerns shouldn’t overshadow the fair.
“We’re a big celebration,” he said last month. “If the health of the people is where you need to take these extraordinary precautions, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing the event.”