This whole summer was supposed to be a great Minnesota get-together.

Most of us had masked up, locked down and looked out for each other. This was our reward. We were vaxxed, relaxed, and ready to have fun again.

We booked flights. We bought movie tickets. We could almost taste the Pronto Pups.

But then came the delta variant, filling hospitals with the unvaccinated, pushing Minnesota's COVID-positive rates up and up.

For 3 million fully vaccinated Minnesotans who did everything right, the question becomes: Is it still OK to get that Pronto Pup?

"I am really struggling with this," said Dr. Beth Thielen, an adult and pediatric infectious disease physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota — and a huge fan of the Minnesota State Fair.

"I'm a born-and-raised Minnesotan who loves the State Fair and was so sad it didn't happen last year," she said.


"In my role as an infectious disease physician for both adults and children, I feel like it's my ethical duty, in my own behavior, to model what I want other people to do."

What epidemiologists want is for everyone to be safe, and for everyone to make it through this surge of dangerous, hyper-contagious COVID with lungs unscarred.

"I love the fair, but the part of me that's an epidemiologist …" Thielen trailed off, making the same calculations so many other people are making right now.

The pure joy of crop art and concerts and butter sculptures and giant vegetables and llama costume contests and crowds of joyful Minnesotans coming together after so long apart.

The raw anxiety of getting together with that many people. In 2019, the State Fair shattered attendance records by drawing 2 million people to the fairgrounds over its 12-day run — approximately the same number of Minnesotans who have yet to get a single dose of the vaccine.

If you're vaccinated with a healthy immune system, you're not worried about yourself. There have been breakthrough cases, but you're not the one who's likely to end up on a ventilator. You are, however, the one who could spread a lethal virus to a child who's too young to get the vaccine or to an unvaccinated neighbor who gets all their medical advice from Facebook.

Seven COVID-19 outbreaks have been traced back to Minnesota fairs and festivals around Minnesota in the past week.

State Fair officials could have required proof of vaccination at the gates or mandated that visitors pull on a mask before they enter the 4-H barns and start patting the bunnies.

But they haven't so far. One more factor to weigh as you debate whether To Fair or Not To Fair.

The epidemiologists aren't ruling the State Fair out. Not yet.

The state is urging visitors to mask up voluntarily before they duck into the fairground buildings to see whose jam won the blue ribbon and what sort of legume the artists chose for the masks featured in this year's crop art. In the mornings and on weekdays, the crowds are usually thinner and social distancing might be possible. The Minnesota Department of Health will even have a vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds — sticks on a stick for the procrastinators.

Last year, they canceled the fair and drove the final nail in the coffin of summer 2020, and it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen to fans of $2 all-you-can-drink milk.

Then came summer 2021. The summer we blew it. The summer we were so close to beating the virus and burning the masks and drinking all the milk.

The Minnesota State Fair is supposed to be a celebration of all that is good and goofy and deep-fried. A space where rural and urban, blue and red, come together over malted milkshakes and newborn lambs at the Miracle of Birth barn.

But can the vaxxed relax?

Will the fair be as fun if you're admiring a thousand-pound pumpkin next to someone who refuses to mask up in the Agriculture Horticulture building? 612-673-4008 • @stribrooks