Those planning to head to the State Fair next week can expect plenty of Pronto Pups, cheese curds and other favorite fair traditions. But after a year off, the Great Minnesota Get-Together may look a little different — and possibly emptier.
There will be no live newscasts from WCCO Radio or Minnesota Public Radio, no field of microphones for the Giant Sing Along, and fewer booths manned by familiar state agencies.
Many Minnesotans have for months rejoiced at the prospect of returning to the 12-day event, which has drawn more than 2 million people in recent years. But after organizers announced Wednesday that attendees would not be required to wear masks or be vaccinated, concerns about COVID-19 and the faster-spreading delta variant have prompted some vendors and visitors to wait another year before making their return to the fair. About 50 vendors have decided to cancel their exhibits in the past three weeks amid rising concerns about COVID infections, staffing shortages and supply chain challenges, State Fair spokesperson Danielle Dullinger said. Those spaces are being left unfilled in the spirit of social distancing.
Some would-be attendees have also taken to social media to criticize fair officials for not taking a tougher stance on health guidelines, pledging to skip the 2021 fair out of safety concerns. Those comments followed an earlier letter from a state agency that said the absence of mask and vaccine mandates will unnecessarily prevent many people with disabilities from attending the fair.
Current levels of COVID-19 spread have health officials concerned about the risks of crowded events, including the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota and the WeFest concert series in Detroit Lakes earlier this month. Outbreaks of three or more unrelated people who tested positive for the coronavirus have been identified at 15 festivals or fairs that took place in July along with six concerts, eight weddings and two funerals, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
State epidemiologists also this week identified three bar and restaurant outbreaks, which are more stringently defined as involving seven unrelated people who tested positive and only visited the same lone establishment in the past month. Outbreaks at bars and restaurants were frequent last summer but hadn't been reported as much this year amid progress with COVID-19 vaccination. Only two had been reported in June and none in July.
Dullinger said fair organizers are "strongly, strongly encouraging" visitors to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.
"We just don't have the capacity to enforce a mask mandate," she said. "We're nothing short of begging at this point — please wear your masks indoors to protect the health of everyone."
About 150 vendors and exhibitors from the 2019 fair will not be returning this year, about 50 to 75 more than usual years, Dullinger said. Many decided they would not be rebooking their booths months ago.
None of the recent cancellations have been food vendors, she said.
Education Minnesota announced Friday that it was withdrawing from the fair, where the teachers union usually runs a popular booth in the Education Building that makes school calendars personalized with fairgoers' photos.
"We decided that we could not in good conscience ask more than 150 educator-volunteers to work at the 2021 fair under the current conditions and then go back into their classrooms a few days later," said Chris Williams, spokesperson for Education Minnesota. "The risks to educators and their students were just too high."
Similarly, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which is requiring employees to get vaccinated by the end of the month, announced it was forgoing a booth at the fair in light of the spread of the delta variant. Heavy Table, a Twin Cities food and drink magazine and newsletter, published an editorial saying staff would not be producing its extensive reviews of fair foods for the first time in a decade.
"Our decision not to cover its new foods this year is collectively breaking our hearts," the editorial said. "But until the fair shows itself to be safe and committed to public health, we can't in good conscience endorse or promote it."
The Minnesota Department of Education dropped out, citing staffing shortages, as did the state Office of Higher Education. Others like the Minnesota AFL-CIO and state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will still be at the fair in a scaled-back way. The DNR is closing its buildings to the public and focusing on outdoor attractions at its park, including the fish pond and bird show.
A portion of the programming on the Star Tribune Stage will be scaled back, but Chief Marketing Officer Steve Yaeger said staff is otherwise "preparing for safe interaction with the many subscribers, readers and fans who visit us every year" by following public health sanitizing and mask guidelines and improving airflow in the news organization's fairgrounds building.
KSTP-TV is the only major Twin Cities news station planning to broadcast newscasts live from the fair. Fox 9 is giving up its booth and only sending equipped reporters into the field "out of an abundance of caution," a spokesperson said, while KARE 11 will only have some live segments and weather hits throughout the week.
And there will, of course, be fair staples — the CHS Miracle of Birth Center, the grandstand, the Giant Slide, Sweet Martha's.
There will also be reminders of the pandemic that prevented the Great Minnesota Get-Together in 2020. For instance, the Minnesota Department of Health is forgoing its usual booth in the Education Building to offer a vaccine clinic with Ramsey County and Homeland Health in the North End Event Center. And Dullinger said fairgoers should expect to see signs asking them to don masks before entering buildings.
"We've been out of business for two years, so we're just asking people for their patience," Dullinger said. "To those who aren't attending — we completely understand, and we hope that we'll see you in 2022."
Staff writers Ryan Faircloth, Erin Golden, Jeremy Olson, Neal Justin and Kavita Kumar contributed to this report.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478