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State fair season is almost here. Many hope for a return to pre-pandemic attendance

A crowd at the Iowa State Fair in 2016. State Fair directors in the Midwest hope attendance levels will match pre-pandemic levels
John Pemble
Iowa Public Radio
A crowd at the Iowa State Fair in 2016. State fair directors in the Midwest hope attendance levels will match pre-pandemic levels.

While COVID isn’t as big of a concern this year, fairs are keeping some protocols in place they picked up during the pandemic. At the same time, they are keeping an eye on other threats to crowd levels.

State Fairs were canceled in 2020, and last year many saw scaled back events, but this year, fairs across the Midwest and Plains states are hoping to put up pre-pandemic attendance numbers.

“There’s a lot of buzz about just starting to feel normal again,” said Rebecca Clark, manager of the Illinois State Fair. “It’s been a really long two years, especially for fairs.”

While COVID-19 variants continue to pop up and cause some concern for public health, for the most part the coronavirus is at a low enough risk level for large outdoor events to carry on as they did in 2019.

The Iowa State Fair is reinstating it’s “Farm to Fair” dinner. It’s a farm to table concept, where 400 fair goers can eat a meal made up of meat, vegetables and other dishes produced in Iowa. And they get to sit with the producers who made it possible.

“We did not do that last year, because it does put people in close proximity to each other while eating the dinner, so we just didn’t do that,” said Gary Slater, CEO and director of the Iowa State Fair. “We’re really excited to have that back.”

While state fairs are bringing back events, they are not abandoning changes they picked up as part of COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Missouri State Fair Director Mark Wolfe said there are a lot more hand washing and sanitizing stations around the fair now, along with other changes.

“The way we do our janitorial disinfecting things, we’ve really stepped that up,” Wolfe said. “I don’t see us not continuing to do that, regardless.”

He said masks also will be available to anyone who wants one.

Missouri saw more than 330,000 attend last year’s fair, which is about 10% lower than pre-pandemic levels, but Wolfe is expecting to be back to average this year.

While COVID concerns are reduced, state fair directors can’t relax, just yet. High inflation is affecting everything from the price of corn dogs and funnel cakes to the gas it takes to get to the fair. That has directors, including Rebecca Clark in Illinois, concerned about how it could affect attendance.

“We’ve been proactive in looking for ways to make the fair affordable. So we have several days, Monday through Thursday, where adult admission is half-priced,” Clark said.

State Fair dates coming up include:

North Dakota State Fair—Minot
July 22-30

Indiana State Fair—Indianapolis
July 29-Aug. 21

Missouri State Fair—Sedalia
Aug. 11-21

Iowa State Fair—Des Moines
Aug. 11-21

Illinois State Fair–-Springfield
Aug. 11-21

Du Quoin State Fair—Du Quoin, Illinois
Aug. 26-Sept. 5

Nebraska —Grand Island
Aug. 26-Sept. 5

Sept. 9-18

Oklahoma—Oklahoma City
Sept. 15-25

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

Jonathan Ahl is a reporter for Harvest Public Media based at St. Louis Public Radio.
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