Gov. Tim Walz called holding the Minnesota State Fair during the coronavirus pandemic a “tough lift,” heightening concerns that the end-of-summer tradition will be canceled for only the sixth time in history.
“I wouldn’t make a definitive call, but I also don’t want to give any false hope on this. I think it will be difficult to see a State Fair operating,” Walz said in response to a question at his daily briefing Thursday.
The governor, who acknowledges he loves the fair, added that one of the greatest parts of the Great Minnesota Get-Together is being “elbow to elbow” in the crowds.
“I don’t know how you social distance in there,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer said in an interview that for now the annual event is on track to open Aug. 27 and run through Labor Day as scheduled.
“We have a duty to present the fair and will continue to do so until it’s absolutely clear we can’t,” Hammer said.
A decision to cancel the fair won’t be made until it must be, he said. But he added the call would be made well before Aug. 1, though he couldn’t say whether a decision would come in May, June or July.
Hammer was firm, however, in saying that there will either be a full-on State Fair or none at all. No one is going to be scanning temperatures along with tickets at the gates, he said.
“We’re a big celebration,” Hammer said. “If the health of the people is where you need to take these extraordinary precautions, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing the event.”
No state fairs with the size and reputation of Minnesota’s have yet canceled for this summer.
The Wisconsin State Fair, scheduled to open Aug. 6 in suburban Milwaukee, is still on despite an alternative care facility built at the fairgrounds for patient overflow.
The Iowa State Fair is scheduled to open Aug. 13 in Des Moines, though officials say they “may implement some changes related to COVID-19 protocols.”
State fairs in Illinois and New York are still on for mid-August starting dates.
And preparations continue for the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, the biggest in the country, in late September and early October, though organizers say they will add to the preventive measures already planned.
Sandy Craighead, who chairs the State Fair Foundation, was aware of Hammer’s optimism but expressed some skepticism.
“Any large gatherings, I just don’t see that for a while,” she said.
Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of the Blue Barn in the fairground’s West End, said she ponders the fate of the State Fair several times a day. She needs to place orders for cups on May 1, then order the paper boats and branded liners for thousands of meals.
Eventually, she will have to order the food itself, including 10,000 pounds of chicken for the eatery’s Nashville Hot Chicken on a Stick. She has a photographer coming Friday to shoot the Barn’s new menu item for the 2020 Fair.
“We have to keep going until we’re told otherwise,” she said.
Shimp said the real drop-dead time for her comes in mid-July, when she must hire staff for the event.
With Blue Plate Restaurant’s spots closed, Shimp’s revenue is already limited. She has a sizable mortgage payment to make on the Blue Barn.
“Financially speaking, I want there to be a fair,” she said, but added she’s also worried about health and safety.
“That part of me says, ‘Geez, I don’t know,’ ” she said.
Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, which sells thousands of buckets of chocolate chip cookies, issued a written statement saying they’re “cautiously moving forward with planning.”
The fair has been canceled three times for wars, once because it conflicted with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and most recently in 1946 during a polio epidemic.
Walz acknowledged it’s tough for Minnesotans to hear the fair is in peril but shrugged and said, “We’ll hope.”
Though the State Fair was created by statute to be run by representatives from the state’s 87 counties in the Minnesota Agricultural Society, it doesn’t receive state money.
Hammer said a decision will be made when the balance tips in one direction. Until then, he said, “We’re not going to do anything that we can’t unwind. Most importantly, we’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize anyone’s health or public safety.”