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Summit County Fair Set to Get Underway This Week

The Portage County Randolph Fair and Summit County Fair both face challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Portage County Randolph Fair and Summit County Fair both face challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

County fairs in Ohio were canceled by the state amid the changing landscape of COVID-19 in Ohio. The state health department changed its mind about county fairs June 16, now allowing them to proceed while following health and safety guidelines. 


As the Summit County Fair prepares to open Wednesday, officials implemented the following precautions: 


-reduced programming and fewer shows to limit crowds; 

-elimination of the senior class exhibits, such as draft horses and canned goods;

-decreased grandstand to 50% capacity, down from 3,100 people to 1,550; 

-asked people to pre-order tickets to minimize waiting in lines; 

-and increased sanitation efforts, including hand-washing stations.


The fair will have signage to remind patrons of social distancing and hand-washing guidelines, and people have to self-check for symptoms before entering the grounds. The fair also added staff positions, such as a documenter who will keep a record of employees and volunteers under the safety guidelines and two positions to sanitize touched surfaces. Call said the fair’s officials felt they needed to track and document their safety measures to provide a paper trail of compliance as part of their internal procedure. 


“We just want people to feel comfortable and to feel assured that when they come to the Summit County Fair that we're doing the right thing, and they've got to do the right thing as well. They have to social distance and wash their hands,” said Howard Call, the fair’s program director and a board member of the Summit County Agricultural Society. 


Call also said a formal training session will take place for all sheriff’s deputies, fire personnel, emergency medical technicians, and volunteers who will work at the fair on how to practice and enforce social distancing guidelines.

“If they see a flagrant issue with more than 10 people in a group, they're going to speak to them,” Call said.  


County fairs are still popular across Ohio, and Call said the Junior Fairboard program is one of the key reasons. 


“It's very important that our youth have a show place to come and work on their projects. Some of these kids have been working on this project since November, December, and we felt it was critically important to get those youth in,” he said. 


Whether they’re working with livestock, horses, sewing, art or another activity, youth members build upon their projects, complete project books and present them at the fair. 


“Coming to the fair to display the project is all part of the growing process and is how I see it, of a youth becoming a young adult ready to go out in the world and lead here,” Call said. 


Many of the youths in the Junior Fairboard program are high school seniors or will age out of 4-H after this year, making it their final year to participate in the fair. 


Call said the Junior Fairboard program is not what pays the bills. Instead admissions, food, and the grandstand events bring in the money, which will all see lower receipts because of the safety guidelines.


“If the people cannot buy grandstand tickets, they probably won't come to the fair. You know, a lot of people come just for the grandstand shows,” he said. 


Despite these factors, Call said that at even 50% capacity, the fair may break even with “just a little bit of black ink.” 


Gov. Mike DeWine and the state legislature worked to provide economic support for fairs during the pandemic. There was $50,000 in funding available for each county or independent fair that conducts a junior fair during the 2020 season, which could be applied for through the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s website. For counties that do not conduct a junior fair in 2020, $15,000 is available per county to be applied towards health and safety expenses in the 2021 fair season. 


While the funds helped in following proper signage and sanitation guidelines, Call said $50,000 does not cover the entire cost of the fair. The Summit County Fair shaved one day off its schedule, Tuesday, which saves about $18,000 in costs. It also eliminated one class in the derby and one class in the truck pull. 


“The objective here is not to fill the bank. The objective here is to get the county fair through to let these youth exhibit their projects and have what I call ‘fun at the fair’ for our 4-H families,” Call said. 


Ticket sales went live June 3, and as of mid-July, the pre-sale was ahead of last year’s.


“We immediately had a rush of ticket sales, but people are kind of holding back, and there have been several events that were pre-sold around the state that were canceled because of various concerns in various counties,” Call said. He thinks a significant number of people will wait to purchase tickets until it’s closer to the fair’s July 29 start to ensure there are no more closures or cancellations across the state.  


Call said other groups would be affected if the fair doesn’t go on because the fair pays out about $17,000 annually to various service clubs from around the county for things like parking attendants, trash removal, grounds clean up and restroom care.


“It's important for the community,” Call said. “All those things that get done every day at the fairgrounds are done by nonprofit groups, like ticket sellers, ticket takers in the community. And we just felt it was important to get that money out to those nonprofits to support their activity clubs and their youth groups.” 


Editor's note: This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.

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Jenna Borthwick