Iowa State Fair canceled for the first time since World War II
Georgie's Roast with the Most Wrap won the Fair's Best New Food of 2019. The Des Moines Register
For the first time since World War II, summer in Iowa will not include a State Fair.
After months of review and discussion, the Iowa State Fair Board voted by secret ballot 11-2 in favor of canceling this year’s event amid continuing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and the financial impracticality of a socially distant fair.
The board also voted to allow fair staff to explore scheduling 4-H and FFA livestock shows in August. The Iowa State Fair had been scheduled for Aug. 13-23.
Presiding over a meeting that took just minutes Wednesday, board president Dave Hoffman called the decision “pretty monumental.”
The final determination came after one-on-one meetings with board members and discussions with stakeholders in Gov. Kim Reynolds' office and the Iowa Department of Public Health, as well as a review of results from a survey sent out to possible fairgoers, Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater said after the vote.
Ultimately, the decision came down to a choice between risk and reward: Should organizers offer an event with the bare minimum, or should they wait until all Iowans can have the full State Fair experience again?
“We tried every which way in the world to put together a plan that kept people safe and that also completed the mission of the Iowa State Fair,” Slater said. But “it became a challenge to have a fair that we could all enjoy and be proud of.”
Considering the limited occupancy on the ground recommended by medical professionals and the considerable drop in attendance suggested by the survey results, the 2020 fair would have been a “shadow” of the fair we know and love, he said.
Not only that, but the numbers didn’t work to make moving forward with the fair financially beneficial, Slater said.
“Not having a fair and having a socially distant fair lost about the same amount of money,” he said. “To have a fair that broke even, we would have had to have triple the number” of people who said in the survey that they would attend.
“It was not even close to breaking even.”
Iowa waited as long as possible to decide
The Iowa State Fair was the last big Midwestern fair to decide whether to open for 2020. Rivals Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana canceled within the past two weeks because of COVID-19 concerns, joining previously scrapped fairs in Ohio and North Dakota.
Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Michigan have said their state fairs will go forward, despite safety risks. Fair leadership in Illinois and Missouri are still weighing options.
The Iowa State Fair has been canceled only five times in its 165-year history, and never for a pandemic or large-scale medical crisis. There was no fair in 1898 due to that year's competing World's Fair in Omaha, and World War II dimmed the Grandstand's lights from 1942-1945.
Fair events were held during the influenza pandemic that began in 1918 as well as during the polio epidemic.
Though all the fairs' management groups stay in contact, each one has a different look and feel, Slater said. The other Midwestern fair groups did not influence the direction the Iowa State Fair took, he said.
Slater has long maintained that a determination would be made by June 15 to give fair staff and partners enough time to get the grounds and event schedule prepared for a possible Aug. 13 opening.
“You have to base your decision on what we know today,” he said. “We all hope that August would be something, that everything has gone away, but I don't know that we can rely on that to be true. And so we rely on our information and surveys and what we know to be those constraints that we need to operate in today.”
Governor not making a recommendation; Grassley had hoped to go
Reynolds said in her daily coronavirus press briefing that she had been in contact with fair staff recently to learn what information they were gathering and how they were determining if they could pull off a fair with reduced attendance. However, she said she did not make a recommendation to the board on whether or not to hold the fair.
“I stand by whatever decision they make,” she said. “I appreciate they’ve really been thoughtful and taking the time. They've not rushed this decision, giving Iowa and Iowans an opportunity to respond.”
Reynolds also distanced her Wednesday proclamation lifting 50% capacity restrictions on businesses from any decision the fair board would make, saying fair staff would have to consider health precautions like any other business.
“You have to remember they've had a lot of participants that typically make up the Iowa State Fair, that are not going, that have already canceled,” she added.
Indeed, the famous Bill Riley Talent Search, which has brought talented youngsters from across Iowa to perform at the State Fair for the past 60 years, called off the 2020 competition in May.
"To my knowledge, it's never been postponed in the past," Bill Riley Jr. told the Register. "It's heartbreaking. I'm really going to miss what I call 'summer season.' "
Country music superstar Chris Stapleton postponed his Grandstand show to next year, saying in a statement that the decision was made "with the health and safety of our fans, touring family, and the communities we travel through" in mind.
Asked if there was any public health opinion regarding if the fair should move forward, Dr. Caitlin Pedati said Wednesday that all of the safety guidelines they’ve sent to businesses — frequent hand-washing, social distancing — would “continue to be important things regardless of which setting we're talking about at this point.”
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said during his weekly press call that he would not “bad mouth” the judgment of public health officials, but that he “sure would miss the Iowa State Fair.”
“I've heard my wife three or four times — maybe more than three or four times — in the last month (say) she wants to go to the State Fair,” he said. “We haven't missed the State Fair since 1974. And before 1974, we periodically went to state fairs.”
“It's not just the Grassleys that love it,” he said, adding that he would wear a mask if asked. “It's an Iowa tradition.”
A different summer … and a bitter economic pill
Many of Iowa’s favorite spring and summer traditions have become casualties to coronavirus this year.
The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known as RAGBRAI, made the "difficult decision" to cancel in April, citing an inability to ensure riders' safety due to the spreading pandemic. The Des Moines Art Fest and 80/35, the annual music festival in Western Gateway, also canceled their 2020 events.
All are major economic drivers for the state, but the State Fair is a financial juggernaut for many local bottom lines, bringing more than a million people and roughly $100 million in economic impact to the Des Moines metro over its 11-day run.
Year-round, about 60 people work for the Iowa State Fair, its website reports, but nearly 3,000 people are hired by the fair and outside exhibitors when the grounds open to the public.
Canceling the State Fair would be a "huge" hit to the local economy, Greg Edwards, president of Catch Des Moines, previously told the Register.
"Most all of our hotels are pretty well full on both the weekends of the fair," Edwards said, "and they also see a big increase in occupancy during the middle of the week, too."
While the fair may be the big draw, Edwards said that visitors often spend money at restaurants, shopping malls and other entertainment venues while they're in the metro.
"During the time of the fair, other big attractions benefit," he said. "Adventureland and the Blank Park Zoo have some of their biggest weeks of the year during the run of the State Fair."
The fair itself will have to reduce expenses over the next few months, Slater said, adding that 90% of the fair’s income is made in August.
But vendors and campers shouldn’t fear any major changes, Slater said.
“My motto is faith, family and fairs, and faith means integrity,” Slater said. “We will do the right thing with our vendors. Those that have their spots will retain those spots for next year.”
Not the fair you remember
Like Slater, officials for many of the already canceled fairs have said that the necessary precautions they would have to put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus would diminish visitors’ experiences, and possibly put too big a strain on the institutions, financially.
In Minnesota, the fair most like Iowa’s, fair manager Jerry Hammer told the Star Tribune that social distancing was near impossible on the fairgrounds and that anything they came up with would be "unrecognizable" and could put the fair "in a hole we might never come out of."
"To all the folks who say they’d come no matter what, well, thanks, but it wouldn’t be anything you’d recognize,” Hammer told the Star Tribune.
In the months that Iowa State Fair staff was monitoring the COVID-19 situation and looking at options, Slater previously said that the fair board and employees have been "humbled" by the words of encouragement they've received from fans far and wide.
Their main goal in making this difficult decision, Slater said, is to “preserve the grand tradition of the Iowa State Fair.”
“If they'll hang on for these next 14 months," Slater said, "and our scientists and our medical professionals take care of the pandemic that we're faced with, we will have a great State Fair and will be back to celebrate everything that's good in Iowa.”
The state of Midwestern fairs
North Dakota: Canceled. “When it’s safer for us to be together again,” the state fair looks forward to making next year’s event “even greater,” Renae Korslien, the fair’s general manager, said in a statement.
South Dakota: On. Gov. Kristi Noem said in a press conference that the South Dakota State Fair would move forward. “We’re thinking out of the box on ways to continue on with the fair and still keep people safe,” she said.
Nebraska: On. In a June 5 update, Nebraska State Fair organizers said they are “optimistic” and “continuing to prepare and plan” for their full 11-day event as well as their large stock show.
Minnesota: Canceled. "Right now is the time of year when things need to really take off if we’re going to have a fair, but we can see that we’re out of runway and can’t get off the ground. There will be no state fair this year,” Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager, said in a statement.
Missouri: Decision pending. An announcement is expected by mid-June, according to a May 13 update on the fair’s website.
Wisconsin: Canceled. "We explored countless models, but ultimately safety cannot be compromised," a news release said. "The risks associated with hosting an event of this size and scope right now are just too great.”
Kansas: On. “Despite the uncertainties of our present situation, fair officials remain confident that residents can ‘Celebrate Kansas’ at the end of summer,” according to a May 13 update to the fair’s website.
Michigan: On. “At this time, we are hopeful that a sense of normalcy will return by (September) and that Michiganders, more than ever, will welcome an opportunity … to celebrate the great state of Michigan,” according to a popup on the fair’s website.
Indiana: Canceled. After “endless hours analyzing all options,” the fair commission made the “painful decision” to cancel, a news release said. The state will host a modified State Fair 4-H Livestock Show and Project showcase.
Ohio: Canceled. “Knowing how easily the virus spreads in large groups, we believe it is the safest path forward for the health and safety of all Ohioans,” Andy Doehrel, chair of the Ohio Expositions Commission, said in a statement.
Illinois: Decision pending, cancellation likely. Although a decision has not been made, large gatherings "are unfortunately not likely to happen in the near future," according to a post on the fair's website.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her favorite State Fair Food is the Bauder's Peppermint Bar. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal.