A state agency that advocates for Minnesotans with disabilities has announced plans to boycott the Minnesota State Fair over the absence of mask mandates and other safety measures that would help contain the possible spread of the coronavirus.

In a strongly worded letter, the Minnesota Council on Disability criticized state leaders for not requiring masks, vaccines or crowd limits at this year's fair, which begins in two weeks. As justification for boycotting the 12-day event, the organization cited a recent surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, largely driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

The state on Friday reported 389 COVID-19 hospitalizations, up from 90 in mid-July. The positivity rate of COVID-19 testing has more than doubled in the past month to 5.1% — surpassing the 5% threshold that state health officials warn indicates substantial viral spread.

Leaders of the state council say the absence of mask and vaccine mandates will unnecessarily prevent many people with disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism from attending the fair, because studies have shown they are at significantly greater risk of contracting the virus and suffering serious complications.

"By not creating a safe place for all Minnesotans to gather, [the Council on Disability's] presence at the State Fair this year would reinforce the message to society that the lives of people with disabilities are less important," the St. Paul-based agency wrote in its letter. "But, others have attempted to frame this issue as freedom from vaccines or masks rather than as a right for Minnesotans with disabilities to be healthy and alive."

As of Friday, masks will not be required for those who attend the fair, but are "strongly encouraged" for those who are not fully vaccinated, according to the latest health and safety guidelines posted on the fair website. Proof of vaccination will not be required for guests, staff or vendors. However, the fair encourages all who are eligible to be fully vaccinated. The State Fair, which draws more than 2 million people each year, "does not anticipate" limits on daily attendance, according to its website.

So far, at least seven COVID-19 outbreaks involving more than 180 people have been identified since early August at fairs and festivals in Minnesota. Outbreaks are defined in Minnesota as three infections involving unrelated people who attended the same event.

The 15-member Council on Disability was created five decades ago to advise the governor, lawmakers and the public on disability issues. Traditionally, the agency has maintained a visible presence at the State Fair, operating a large booth where visitors can learn about its advocacy work. The council has also worked with fair organizers in recent years to expand access to the fair for people who use wheelchairs, and to provide interpreters for fair visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.

E. David Dively, executive director of the Council on Disability, said his agency's staff contacted State Fair officials nearly a half-dozen times since May expressing the urgent need for well-publicized COVID-19 safety protocols, but fair officials did not seek the agency's input before determining its current safety guidelines.

By not requiring masks, vaccines or crowd limits, Dively said, fair organizers are effectively barring thousands of people with disabilities from attending because the health risks would be too great. For instance, research published last fall found that adults with Down syndrome are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and 10 times more likely to die from the virus than the general population.

"This lack of action continues the trend of de-prioritizing marginalized communities," the council's letter said. "These policies, or lack of policies, appear to be overlooking Minnesotans with disabilities and other marginalized communities, making people's health a secondary priority."

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.