Counties across Iowa have decided to forego their fairs this year because of the risk of spreading COVID-19. Many fairs have been canceled or postponed until next year, and a few decided to go ahead and function with many modifications and restrictions.
Iowa normally has 106 fairs throughout the summer. Tom Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs, explains that every fair is responsible for choosing whether to follow through with their events. “We do not make decisions on any part of our member fairs,” Barnes says. “We offer them guidance, materials, education, and kind words of caution and encouragement.”
All things considered
There are three factors Barnes says play a role in the decision-making process: health and safety, liability, and financial risk. The Association of Iowa Fairs follows guidelines from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Iowa Public Health Department. These guidelines are not specific to county fairs but are still important for general health and safety.
In addition to the number of people attending a fair, the places they come from are also taken into consideration. Barnes says some fairs can have people coming from multiple states, which poses an issue when trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “It raises questions,” he says, “such as how do fairs know how many people are coming onto their grounds? If you’ve got a big influx of people coming into your community, how do you know if they have been exposed?”
The Association of Iowa Fairs encourages every county to communicate with their insurance providers and understand their coverage. In counties like Howard County where Barnes is from, liability of something problematic happening falls on the fair itself. “If we didn’t do our due diligence and forget something or don’t do it correctly, we are on our own,” Barnes says. “That’s a lot for a fair to assume.”
Operating with adjustments
Budgets for entertainment and supplies are set months in advance, and many of these events were eventually canceled. Fairs usually depend on volunteer help for entertainment, and Barnes explains that many volunteers make up an older age group who are at a higher risk for COVID-19. Between canceled events and a lack of volunteers, financial downturns for county fairs are a reality.
The majority of Iowa’s county fairs this year decided the risks outweighed the benefits of hosting their annual fair. Nonetheless, some fairs this summer are able to operate, although with many adjustments.
The Clinton County Fair held in Dewitt in eastern Iowa is self-proclaimed as “The Greatest Little Fair.” Members of the fair board, including secretary and manager Mary Stevenson, chose to hold the 2020 fair July 14-18.
The fair was to operate to the best of its ability in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. Social distancing was strongly encouraged and areas like bleachers were sanitized often. “If people don’t feel healthy or safe, we don’t want them to come,” Stevenson says. “We understand, and we are fine with that.”
Judging, shows and more
Clinton County 4-H members who complete non-livestock projects usually attend conference judging and present their work to a judge face-to-face. This year there was no interaction between exhibitors and judges. Instead, projects were dropped off and judged based on write-ups and appearance.
In past years, these projects were on public display in the auditorium at the fair. 4-H clubs decorated booths, and the building was open all day for people to admire things like photography, woodworking and fashion design. This year, however, clubs couldn’t set up booths, and the auditorium was only open in the evenings to limit crowds.
Amanda Rau, youth and 4-H coordinator for the Clinton County Fair, says livestock were also handled differently this year. Species like beef and swine that usually stay in the barns for the length of the fair were only stalled the night before their show. “Beef and swine are stalled overnight, but families are asked to spread out and practice physical distancing,” Rau says.
There were only one or two livestock shows per day, and these shows also saw changes. “Some classes were split to allow exhibitors more room to spread out,” Rau says. “Other aspects were just canceled, like dog agility.”
Besides livestock shows, there were no other daily events or attractions. The fair still planned on nightly entertainment, though. Events such as truck and tractor pulls, and even a concert by Casey Mussigeman were scheduled.
The fair made changes to its concession stand to establish better safety for visitors, even if it meant sacrificing popular fair cuisine. Only bottled beverages were offered. Stevenson says food trucks were available on the fairgrounds in lieu of the usual concessions.
An exhibitor’s experience
Showing at the county fair is a chance for 4-H and FFA members to exhibit the hard work they have dedicated to their projects. Preparation for these shows begins months in advance.
Clayton Grantz, a member of the Goose Lake Jr. Feeders 4-H club, has been showing beef cattle and swine for four years. Grantz has a daily routine to care for his steer, Bandit. “I get the feed for him, go to the scale to weigh it out and dump it in his pan,” he says. “I let him eat and then get his halter on to walk him around. Then I wash him and bring him back to the barn to blow dry him.”
Such a routine is beneficial when training livestock because with the modified stalling rules, animals have less time to become acquainted with their new environment. “The cattle don’t get to settle in much,” Grantz says. “They are a little spunkier because they haven’t gotten used to their surroundings as well.”
Grantz knows how to maintain control of his steer while in the show ring despite the animal’s nervous energy. “I like to talk to my steer, so he knows I’m there and he doesn’t get spooked,” he says. “He doesn’t like his tummy rubbed much, so I scratch the back of his legs to keep him calm.”
Even though livestock like Bandit still got the chance to be shown, there were many aspects of this year’s fair that were different. What did Grantz miss most? In previous years, all the animals were on the fairgrounds at once. This year they took turns coming, didn’t stay long and went home after being shown. With only a limited number of livestock allowed on the fairgrounds each day, he also missed not being able to walk through the barns to see everyone’s projects throughout the week.
Friedrichsen is a Wallaces Farmer intern.