The Minnesota State Fair, summer’s reliable finale, has been forced to take the year off for only the sixth time in history because of concerns about COVID-19.
“The alternative is to slap something together that’s unrecognizable and risky,” fair general manager Jerry Hammer said. “That puts the fair in a hole we might never come out of.”
Tim Weiss of Giggles’ Campfire Grill was disappointed but said, “I’ve got to tell you, please print this: Safety comes first.”
Fair board members voted to cancel after a private internet call that lasted 45 minutes. They voted unanimously to call it off. The fair was last canceled in 1946 because of the polio epidemic. It was been canceled three other times for wars, and once to avoid a conflict with the Chicago World’s Fair.
The decision came a day after Ohio called off its state fair. North Dakota’s fair also has been canceled. Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois are still on — for now.
Since the U.S. outbreak of the novel coronavirus, it became obvious vendors and exhibitors wouldn’t be coming, said Ron Oleheiser, president of the State Fair board. Some were worried about low attendance and inadequate revenue. Cancellation of several county fairs also had prevented qualifying competitions for some livestock events.
“Given the situation, we’ve done the right thing at the right time,” Oleheiser said. “We just have to move on and start looking at 2021.”
After the vote, Stephanie Shimp posted on social media a photo of her popular building in the West End, the Blue Barn, and wrote, “The right decision for all ... and still so sad. See you next year.”
Within hours she had a few dozen notes of commiseration and pledges to visit her business next year.
Although the COVID-19 infection peak in Minnesota is expected in July, the threat of contagion killed this year’s 12-day event, which draws hundreds of thousands from around the state.
“To all the folks who say they’d come no matter what, well, thanks, but it wouldn’t be anything you’d recognize,” Hammer said.
Some fans had suggested a fair for “only healthy people,” but Hammer said the fair has “got to be accessible for everybody.”
The fair routinely draws more than 2 million visitors during its run, serving as summer’s last hurrah and ending on Labor Day with most children across the state returning to school the next day.
Hammer previously said the fair had to be a full-on fair or not take place at all.
He dismissed the idea of mitigation, such as temperature checks.
“Social distancing? Here? Come on,” he said after the vote.
Vendors face revenue losses from the cancellation, but safety preparations also were daunting.
Michael and Sarah Wentzien own San Felipe Tacos in the Food Building. Combined with her parents’ home-brewed root beer operations, they hire about 50 workers every year.
They were strategizing about how to safely get a dozen employees into their 18-by-20 foot space during peak hours. “There would be a lot of configuration changes to make sure people are safe,” Michael Wentzien said. “We were worried about staff.”
Now they’re worried about whether their fans will return and their taco cones can keep up the momentum from their strong 2019 debut. “We hope fairgoers will remember how much they enjoyed all of our food when they return in 2021,” Sarah Wentzien said.
University of Minnesota Extension Dean Beverly Durgan, who oversees 4-H, issued a statement saying health is a pillar of the 4-H pledge.
“In the coming weeks, we will be sharing our plans for ways we can create new experiences,” she said. “It won’t replace the fair but we are committed to meaningful programming.”
Hammer decided late last week to schedule the special board meeting for Friday with the expected vote to cancel. For at least a month, Gov. Tim Walz and his staff have expressed pessimism about the prospects for the end-of-summer gathering because of the risk of community spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We can’t create a parallel reality. We have to make decisions based on what we know today,” Hammer said, adding that pandemics and plagues are woven through history; they’re not unprecedented. “We recover,” he said.
The fair’s board members represent the state’s statutory agricultural districts. They are Joe Fox of North St. Paul, D.J. Leary of Minneapolis, Gordy Toenges of Alden, Jeff Hawkins of Inver Grove Heights, Gail Johnson of Anoka, Joe Scapanski of Sauk Rapids, Wally Wichmann of Balaton, Ray Erspamer of Hibbing and Danny Grunhovd of Gary.
All voted to cancel except Leary, who wasn’t present.