Minnesota State Fair attendance rebounded to 1.8 million this year, with many fairgoers returning after skipping last year's event due to COVID-19.

This year's 12-day extravaganza fell short of beating the all-time attendance record of 2.1 million set in 2019, though attendance was up from 1.3 million in 2021. It remains unclear whether emerging public safety concerns — including two Labor Day weekend incidents that drew a sharp rebuke from Gov. Tim Walz — may have affected attendance.

One person was shot in the leg just after 10 p.m. Saturday near the entrance to the Mighty Midway, forcing authorities to close the fairgrounds early as crowds rushed to the exits. Though law enforcement officials responded by doubling their presence for the fair's final two days, a man was shot at 8:35 p.m. Monday just outside the southeast corner of the fairgrounds, less than a half-hour from the fair's official end.

"These incidents of senseless violence are totally unacceptable, and we as a society have to look at all of the pieces that go into this," Walz said at a news conference Tuesday.

Walz said 60 agencies participated in efforts to boost State Fair security, including the State Patrol and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

"We have to have a zero tolerance with this," he said.

The governor renewed a call for the Legislature to return to the Capitol in a special session and pass a package of public safety proposals that includes funding for local communities to hire more police officers and social workers and pay for needed equipment. He also said there are too many guns on the street and officials need to make it "as difficult as possible for folks to be getting these guns."

"This is not a crime of poverty. This is not someone stealing baby formula or something," he said. "This is someone shooting a firearm in a crowded area. That's totally unacceptable."

There were more than 30 police officers within 15 feet of the Saturday shooting, according to Walz. Both shootings were possibly tied to gang-related activities and the individuals involved knew each other, Walz said, but the victims have not been cooperative in identifying the suspects.

"This is just a brazen disregard for the safety of others," he said.

Total fair attendance this year beat early estimates of 1.7 million, producing funds to pour back into programming, infrastructure and security, said General Manager Jerry Hammer.

Hammer called Saturday's shooting "an incredibly stupid act" and thanked law enforcement for their swift response.

Attendance up, but no records

The 2022 State Fair started strong with 121,000 people walking through the gates on a sunny opening day, double the opening-day attendance in 2021 — the first year back after the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID.

On the first Friday, attendance of 153,000 was just 4,000 people shy of the all-time record for that day set in 2019. Vendors and fairgoers expressed enthusiasm about returning for the end-of-summer tradition.

"It all went very well," said Greg Parenteau, owner of OOf-da Tacos. "Sales were back to normal."

Parenteau said he wasn't worried about his or his staff's personal safety at the fair following the weekend gun violence, but he said he worries that if such behavior continues it could "hurt and hinder attendance for future fair-going families."

Rain, stormy weather and overcast skies throughout the first weekend of the fair likely discouraged some would-be fairgoers. A return to sunny skies throughout the week drew crowds in the low 100,000s each day.

Labor Day weekend, which typically draws the biggest crowds, started strong with 249,000 in attendance on Saturday. Crowds were a bit smaller on Sunday, at 222,000, and about 157,000 revelers were at the fairgrounds on Labor Day.

This year marks the fifth best-attended fair ever, according a news release. Attendance figures were higher from 2016 through 2019.

"This is consistent with what we are seeing at fairs across the Midwest," Hammer said. "We are seeing good attendance, but not records."