SUPERIOR, WIS. – The 10-year-old who raised the grand champion hog received a congratulatory elbow bump. A farmer bidding on it wore a mask, though many around him didn’t.
The livestock auction is a longtime tradition at Douglas County’s six-day Head of the Lakes Fair, and not even a coronavirus pandemic stopped it from drawing a crowd.
Across the country, organizers have canceled thousands of annual fairs and festivals in the wake of the outbreak. But in this northwestern Wisconsin city, the fair and a bow hunting expo drew a few thousand people eager for entertainment and escape from the confines of their homes.
“Boy, is it good to be out again,” said Jim Streveler, who hasn’t missed a fair since 1968.
The barnyard stench mixed with the smell of fried food, the delighted shrieks of children, the flashing lights of carnival rides — that sensory blend that a few hundred people inhaled Thursday night, soaking up the summer fun after months of being cooped up indoors.
The fair and expo in northwestern Wisconsin are underway as COVID-19 cases in the state surged this week, when a single-day record 1,117 new people tested positive for the disease Tuesday. That uptick was caused mostly by infections in the eastern part of the state, though Douglas County has seen more than a dozen new cases in the past seven days.
There are signs that the pandemic is taking a toll on the events.
Organizers said they expect Head of the Lakes attendance to be close to last year’s 3,700, though longtime fairgoers said Thursday was much less crowded than normal.
At Bowfest, a four-day archery and music festival, a couple of its top musical acts canceled, including Detroit rocker Ted Nugent.
“We would still certainly not recommend large gatherings right now,” said Kathy Ronchi, Douglas County’s health officer.
She’s worked with the organizer of Head of the Lakes and Bowfest to make sure they’re taking precautions.
Each county fairgoer had to get a temperature check at the entry gate. At Bowfest, big white boxes were painted on the hillside grass to mark space for folks to socially distance as the Kentucky Headhunters jammed on stage. Hand sanitizing stations were scattered throughout both sites.
“In Douglas County, we really support people in making choices,” Ronchi said. “I am hoping we can use this as a good example of how things can be done with lower risk.”
Carnival worker Beth Holzscheiter was realistic about the risks.
“If I get the virus, I get it,” she said with a shrug in front of her carnival booth. She usually travels all summer working at fairs across the Midwest, but Head of the Lakes is her company’s only booking so far this year.
Holzscheiter accepted a few dollars from a young mom and smiled as she sent two toddlers off with stuffed ladybugs. She cleaned the rubber ducks they selected in a game of chance in a bucket of bleach.
Neighboring St. Louis County in Minnesota called off two fairs this summer. The fairgrounds in Chisholm are serving as a COVID-19 testing site next week. Further south in Proctor, organizers are already discussing plans to boost public health at next year’s event.
“When I see them having races and fair food over the bridge in Superior, I actually get a little angry,” said Mary Korich, secretary for the the South St. Louis County Fair Board. Her 62-year-old brother, a retired Marine who ran 5 miles a day, was on a ventilator for eight days in Nevada after catching COVID-19.
“I’m so afraid someone’s going to get infected. If this disease would get to any little kid, I couldn’t live with myself,” she said.
Daniel Litchke, a 25-year-old serving his first year as director of Head of the Lakes Fair, said most all feedback from fair attendees has been positive, though he’s been criticized on social media for not canceling the event.
“Our grounds are over a million square feet. There’s plenty of social distancing,” he said. “If you don’t want to come, you don’t have to come.”
At least 22 COVID-19 cases, and possibly one death, were traced back to an Ohio county fair at the end of June. Health officials there are using the gathering as an example to those not following safety measures.
Nobody in Superior seemed bothered by the man grilling corn without a mask, or the high-five children received after completing the blowup obstacle course. Kids squished together in line for the bumper cars, teens huddled together to share a funnel cake and adults crammed together in bleachers with beers in hand.
Kaitlyn Villebrun, 18, and Rhema Placencio, 14, donned face masks as they waited for their mini doughnut order, though they were among the minority with face coverings at Head of the Lakes.
“We’re just trying to be considerate of others,” Villebrun said.
The livestock auction wrapped up just as the sun began to set Thursday, and those who watched slid off the bleachers and went to congratulate the youth who spent months raising and training the animals.
Ronchi said Douglas County asked the National Guard to set up drive-through testing sites in the area after the events in case there is a spike in demand for tests.
“I know people are starving for entertainment,” Ronchi said. “It’s sort of in the hands of the people that are going to go. Are you going to make our county regret this?”