For 117 years the Polk County Fair in Fertile, Minn. has been delighting fairgoers who come from near and far to enjoy the fun and merriment. But not this year. In the fair’s storied history, it has never been cancelled until now. It wasn’t cancelled when the flu of 1918 struck; or during the polio epidemic in 1946; but this year is different.
Polk County Fair President Dan Grunhovd explained that with over 45,000 people coming to the small town of Fertile (population 833) during the five days of the fair, the health and safety of the volunteers along with fair attendees was first and foremost in making the decision to cancel. “Our fair is run mostly by volunteers and those are mostly senior citizens,” Grunhovd said.
In addition to the concern of having at-risk senior volunteers at the fair, the carnival portion was also an issue. “They were concerned about coming here,” he said.
“It’s been such an institution for so many years, there were people that were sad,” Grunhovd said. From the food, rides and exhibits, maintaining social distancing would be almost impossible. The number of fairgoers who could attend would have been extremely limited. “You can’t run a fair at 50 percent,” he said.
The Norman County Fair board in Ada, Minn. also made the unanimous decision to cancel their fair. “Our community has been very supportive,” said Don Merkens, president of the Norman County Fair board. “Nobody wants to cancel the fair,” Merkens said. It was simply something that unfortunately had to be done.
Merkens also serves on the board of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, the organization that promotes the interest of the county fairs in the state. It’s each county fair’s own decision whether to hold their fair or not; but MFCF can offer their guidance. “We can give them some reasons why it would be hard to have the fair,” Merkens said. The MFCF has listed only eight county fairs still on in the state with 86 county fairs which have cancelled so far.
Merkens also found that because of the pandemic, the H-2B visas used to temporarily employ foreign workers for the carnivals, were cancelled. “No county fair is trying to punish someone by cancelling the fair,” Merkens said. There are too many obstacles this year to be able to run the fair safely and at a capacity that would work financially.
Looking ahead to the future of county fairs, Merkens expects “there will be a whole new look to it.” That includes using plexiglass in various areas where social distancing isn’t plausible and the wide use of hand sanitizer.
For Mike Woitas, Freeborn County Fair manager and board member, canceling the fair was a difficult decision. Woitas explained the Freeborn County Fair has large name entertainers for their grandstand and those entertainers cancelled their shows. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks.” There were 45,000 reserved seats for those shows and those tickets are now being refunded. “There aren’t very many entertainers willing to go out right now and risk their lives for shows.”
It was already going to be a challenging fair this year as the entrance to the Freeborn County Fair in Albert Lea, Minn. is under construction. There’s usually 15,000 people a day that come through the Freeborn fair gates during its six-day run.
Looking ahead to next year, Woitas believes that the fair board will have to build the public’s trust that it’s safe to be at the fair in 2021. “It will be a new normal.”
While many across the state are saddened by the cancellation of so many county fairs this year, there seems to be a resolve to create safety measures to ensure that next year’s fairs are the best yet.