10 Realities Fairs Must Face Due to COVID-19


Fairs have been a part of the culture of communities for many years – showcasing the very best of agriculture, industry and people. They are economic engines for their community, generating revenue year-round through facility rentals. Fair facilities are critical infrastructure and provide staging for utility crews when natural disasters strike. They even stepped up to the plate to provide support to communities during the COVID-19 crisis. 

According to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) the operation of agricultural fairs results in $4.67 billion each year for the U.S. economy and provides thousands of jobs.

But, perhaps even more importantly and harder to quantify, is the impact that fairs have on people’s lives. 

“Fairs are social drivers within their community, changing lives of everyone from the 4-H kid winning that first blue ribbon in the show ring or with a plate of snickerdoodle cookies, to the person given a second chance with employment, to the food vendor who takes a passion onto the road for a summer and builds a lifetime business, and to the scholarship recipients who go on to become doctors, teachers, innovators, scientists, or even elected leaders,” says Marla Calico, IAFE president and chief executive officer. 

Although many think all “state” fairs are alike, Calico says they are not. Across the U.S. there are different models of governance, organizational structure and funding for “state” fairs, she explains. 

“The Ohio State Fair and Missouri State Fair are functions of government; the employees are state employees and receive state benefits. Both can request funds for capital improvement projects on the grounds while one has general operating support from the state and the other does not,” Calico says. “Compare that to the State Fair of Texas, a private non-profit entity, along with the state fairs in South Carolina, Delaware, Alaska, New Jersey, Washington, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Maryland. These organizations work without any taxpayer subsidy.”

State Fairs in Florida and Nebraska are non-profits, but also a political subdivision of the state, meaning there is some tie to the state, she says. The State Fair of Virginia is wholly owned and operated by Virginia Farm Bureau. Meanwhile, the Hawaii State Fair is privately owned and operated by E.K.Hernandez Shows, a mobile amusement ride operator.

To put it simply, there’s a lot of variance of what it means to be a “state” fair. IAFE has between 1,100 and 1,200 member fairs around the globe. Currently IAFE members are in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Members all share a common denominator: a tie to agriculture. 

Regardless of a fair’s size, Calico shares 10 factors fairs are facing when making the decision to move ahead or cancel in 2020.

1. Likelihood of mass gatherings.
Will mass gatherings be permitted at the time the fair is scheduled? In Oregon, for example, there was no choice. The governor has banned all live events through September.

2. Likelihood of only limited gatherings.
How will show management be able to handle limited gathering restrictions not yet known that might be placed upon the fair?

3. Ability to comply with unknown restrictions.
With no assurance of when such guidance will be available, this is a challenge for fair managers to predict.

4. Booked entertainment’s ability to fulfill commitments.
Likelihood of booked entertainment actually being able to complete tours and dates as planned.

5. A second, third or fourth ‘wave’ of the coronavirus.
What would happen if another wave of coronavirus in the area causes the governing health authority to order an immediate lockdown? There is a window of time when the fair must spend significant funds in advance of the fair and if the fair cannot go forward, then all that is lost and there is no chance to recoup expenses.

6. Differing allowances for gatherings.
The patchwork of governing health authorities with varying concepts of what is allowed for mass gatherings across the U.S. is a challenge. How will mobile amusement midway operators, mobile food vendors, some exhibitors of other items which travel a circuit, certain providers of services and equipment, livestock show judges, etc., be able to move from fair to fair? What will be permissible from a route standpoint? The impact goes even deeper because some may not be able to secure product or supplies to do their work at the fair or may have concerns with securing staff necessary. 

7. Sentiment within their community. 
What is the economic impact of COVID-19 within that community? The question for a fair becomes: If we are allowed to go forward, will people feel safe and want to come out and will they have any money to spend?

8. Availability of volunteers and/or staff. 
Many volunteers fall within the “at-risk” categories based upon age. Are they willing to help in this environment? Would there be sufficient labor pool available for temporary work? Will organized youth groups (i.e. 4-H or school), which often perform group service in exchange for a donation, even be allowed to gather as a group?

9. The health of volunteers and/or staff.
Can fair volunteers and staff health be adequately protected?

10. Knowledge today.
The statement from Minnesota State Fair probably sums it up best: “….we need to make decisions now based upon what we know today, not how we hope things will be in August.”

More from Farm Journal’s PORK:

State Fair Cancellations Shatter Dreams Across the Country

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