The Minnesota State Fair is stepping up security.
In a year marked by terrorist attacks, civil unrest and heightened safety concerns worldwide, a beefed-up security force will be stationed at each of the 11 gates to search through the bags, backpacks and coolers of the hundreds of thousands of people attending the Great Minnesota Get-Together, which runs Aug. 25 through Labor Day.
Almost 100 security screeners will search for contraband, said State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer, who ran through the list of prohibited items at a news briefing Tuesday.
No weapons of any sort will be allowed on the fairgrounds, he said. No fireworks — “we have plenty of our own.” Ditto for alcoholic beverages.
The new security measures, including new restrictions on vehicle traffic on the fairgrounds and increased security staffing and video surveillance, aren’t a response to any specific threat, Hammer said. Rather, the fair has routinely upgraded its security, staffing and surveillance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, with the aim of ensuring Minnesota’s annual rite of summer remains a happy memory for those who attend.
“The fair’s always been about bringing people together … to celebrate everything that’s good about the state,” Hammer said.
The fair will set up express lanes for fairgoers without bags and Hammer said screeners will try to minimize delays at entrances. Last year, more than 1.78 million people visited the fair during its 12-day run.
The 320-acre fairgrounds, packed with as many as 250,000 fairgoers on the busiest days — are already patrolled by cameras, dogs and a security force of 300. By comparison, the surrounding city of St. Paul — 56 square miles and a population of almost 300,000 — has about 600 police officers.
The fair has steadily ratcheted up security over the past decade and a half, Hammer said, including bag checks at grandstand shows that began in 2003.
The newest safeguards were developed in coordination with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, he said.
State Fair security varies by state.
Texas, for example, has been searching bags at the gates for decades, Hammer said. Other fairs, however, are more hands-off.
In Iowa, where the state fair is in full swing this week in Des Moines, crowds enter without metal detectors or bag checks. Fair Manager and CEO Gary Slater said the close quarters at the gates don’t lend themselves to long lines and backups of visitors waiting to be screened as they enter the grounds.
“We have to balance the practicality of our configuration with safety concerns,” Slater said.
The Iowa fair, which runs Aug. 11-21, is patrolled by hundreds of law enforcement officers and a private security force. Also, Slater said, “We are a weapons-free zone by law. You can’t conceal and carry [a firearm].” Signs are posted throughout the grounds noting that bags and other items are subject to search on demand.
The Ohio State Fair, which just wrapped up its run without any serious incidents, has had metal detectors at the entrances since 2006 and security officers searching bags since 2013. Fair officials put up several 25-foot-tall surveillance towers three years ago, too, for a bird’s-eye view of the grounds and parking areas in Columbus.
“We run a tight ship around here,” said fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults.
Ohio fairgoers’ bags are also checked a second time at concert entry points, and a bomb-sniffing dog thoroughly inspects the music venue even before the first patron enters, Shoults said.
Meanwhile, security concerns are heightened this year at the Texas State Fair after the host city of Dallas lost five police officers to a gunman in July.
While security is “something that we focus on every year,” spokeswoman Karissa Condoianis said Texas fair officials have been especially diligent this year, coordinating with city and transit police as well as the fair’s third-party security “to talk through everything so everybody has a comfort level with our safety and security.”
Every year, hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers keep watch over the Texas fairgrounds, which open to the fair Sept. 30.
Patrons have their bags and other items checked and scanned upon entry, Condoianis said. There also are platforms at many of the seven entrances and towers throughout the parking area to give officers the best vantage points.