In the middle of the Clark County Fair, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the rest of the fairs this summer would be barred from holding more than a junior fair.
While that caused consternation — and in some cases outright anger — in counties planning to hold a more traditional event, it gave Clark County Fair Board Executive Director Dean Blair reason to feel good about the decision his board made in late spring and stuck to last week to hold a junior fair.
That included shortening the fair to five days from eight, limiting attendance and requiring everyone to wear masks and social distance.
“I think we found out that going back to your roots can be a nice restart in a sense, and that it’s not been near as terrible,” Blair said. “So I guess my encouragement to other fairs that are going to be now doing a junior fair because that’s all that they can do: Don’t be scared of it and don’t be afraid. It can be a wonderful thing. It can be a wonderful experience for the kids and for the families, and can be a very, very enjoyable thing.”
DeWine first indicated in May he would like to see counties hold at minimum a junior fair. Later the state released guidelines laying out how that could happen while maintaining social distancing and keeping crowds small to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Those were revised in June to allow more events, but Clark County stayed with plans to have only a junior fair even as some nearby counties planned to have grandstand events and other entertainment.
While animal shows were the impetus for fairs in the first place in the 19th century, modern fairgoers are used to many more bells and whistles.
This one still had 14 food vendors, but otherwise animals were the only show in town.
“I think we’ve had an enjoyable fair,” Blair said. “I think we’ve learned some things that aren’t as important as we maybe thought they were, and some things we’ve really missed.”
Patty House, an Ohio State Extension educator and the director of 4-H in Clark County, said many of the changes brought about by the pandemic are likely to become permanent.
That includes most paperwork being electronic, staggering move-in times for animals and making sure hand sanitizer is plentiful.
“I think one of the things that people really miss that they definitely want to come back is clubs decorating the barns, sprucing up of the fairgrounds and showcasing their clubs with all the signage and stuff that we typically have,” she said.
One of the biggest changes — livestock sales being held entirely online — has not gone through yet.
That is scheduled to begin today, and there is some anxiousness about how it will go.
However, the possibility of maintaining the virtual sale at least in some form has already been floated.
“Maybe in the future it would be a combination where maybe it would just be the champions (live) and then the rest of it virtual,” Blair said. “Or maybe not. We don’t know. The verdict’s still out.”
Another online experiment that already took place got good reviews.
Blair said response to live-streaming most of the livestock shows was positive — without being too popular.
“I know there were several times I looked in and it was usually between 50 and 100 users that were watching the show at a time,” he said. “And there were a couple shows that got as high as 150 or 175.”
That was a good number, Blair said, but probably not so high that it would give the fair board reason to be concerned it could cut attendance in the future when a normal fair is able to be held.
The livestreams also allowed people who would not be able to attend to watch, including someone from Fort Myers, Fla., who wrote Blair to say she enjoyed being able to watch a niece show.
“And then I’ve had some grandparents that have sent texts or either wrote short letters, thanking us for this and saying they wouldn’t have gotten to see it otherwise,” Blair said.
While contracting NetSteady of Central Ohio to do the streams cost $12,000, the Clark County Agricultural Society’s overall expenses will end up being around $110,000 according to Blair.
Typically, the board spends $450,000-500,000 to put on a fair and expects to end up anywhere from $20,000 in the hole to $20,000 in the black. This year with contributions from the state and local organizations, Blair said the deficit is likely to be around $30,000-40,000.
“It’s really going to hurt, but it’s survivable,” Blair said.
On the other hand, planning a full fair that was then forced to be scaled back at the last minute could have cost considerably more if it caused contracts to be broken.
Blair also suggested a full fair might have suffered from an attendance standpoint, particularly with Clark County having been upgraded to a level 3 on Ohio’s COVID-19 risk level guidelines last week.
“Gosh, we could be sitting here losing six-figure money, and that could have put us out of business,” Blair said.
Instead, he is looking ahead to the 2021 fair.
While the pandemic has proven to be unpredictable to this point, the hope is for a more traditional fair next year.
“The lesson from this year is, how do we overcome challenges?” House said. “None of us have been through a pandemic before, and I think the members have risen to the challenge.”
Fair participants and their parents agreed.
“I was just glad we were able to have a fair,” said CJ Wilt, who showed the grand champion market hog.
His father, Chad Wilt, credited the fair board with putting in the work to pull it off despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think anybody can thank those people enough for the time they put in as far as that goes,” the elder Wilt said. “I guess I’d just like to express our thanks as a community because I know as parents we are appreciative of them making this happen because we know how hard it was for them.”
That was a common sentiment shared by exhibitors and parents.
“For this year? Oh yeah,” Michelle Krempasky replied when asked if everything had gone about as well as expected given the circumstances.
Her son, Max, showed the grand champion market beef steer, an opportunity that was in doubt much of the spring before DeWine agreed to allow fairs, with a preference for junior fairs, this summer.
“We were very worried about it,” she said. “It was very touch and go. I mean you would sit and watch DeWine talk and get goosebumps when he talked about fairs and you were just hoping that we would get the fair in.
“Even with the masks and all the things they did, it was worth it. It was worth getting to watch him show,” she added.
The Krempaskys are among those who are looking forward to getting back to it.
“We’re going to start looking for a steer in a month, and that’s a hard decision to make to find another project and not know what’s going to happen. So we’ll have to sit down and talk about it,” Michelle Krempasky said.
“Hopefully we’ll get this taken care of and it will all work out. Max is gung-ho already talking about what are we going to do next year so that’s exciting. You don’t want them to lose that momentum.”