COLUMBUS, Ohio (FARM AND DAIRY) – Ohio legislators and organizations are urging Gov. Mike DeWine to take action on fairs for the 2021 season before it’s too late for them to plan.
Four Ohio legislators sent a letter, along with a draft of suggested guidelines from the Ohio Fair Managers Association, Greater Ohio Showman’s Association and Ohio Fairs & Festivals Association, to DeWine’s office, Feb. 12. The proposed guidelines are based on other, similar guidelines the state has approved in the past.
“We know our communities can operate fun, educational and safe county fairs and festivals. … We must also recognize that our fairs and festivals provide a financial benefit to our communities and the businesses that operate on our midways,” reads the letter, signed by Republican Reps. Don Jones, of Freeport, and Kyle Koehler, of Springfield, and Republican Sens. Tim Schaffer, of Lancaster, and Frank Hoagland, of Mingo Junction.
Livestock and farming commodity groups, including Ohio Farm Bureau, also sent a letter to DeWine’s office Feb. 16, asking DeWine to move forward with plans for fairs as soon as possible and for an additional $2 million in funding to help the Ohio Expo Commission with costs of personnel and the state fair.
“Our fair boards and exposition commission continue to be in limbo … and we would ask for immediate guidance and authority for our fairs to be able to fully operate,” the letter reads.
In 2020, many fairs were only able to hold junior fairs due to the pandemic and related health guidelines. If 2021 looks similar, many amusement ride, game and food operators’ businesses will not survive, said Howard Call, executive director for the Ohio Fair Managers Association, in an interview with Farm and Dairy.
Part of the challenge is that fairs don’t yet know what the rules for 2021 will look like. Guidelines changed multiple times in 2020, with an order restricting fairs to junior fairs only in July, more than a month into the fair season.
“We want to be responsible,” Jones told Farm and Dairy. “But we also have to be very well aware of the fact that if we don’t have fairs and festivals this summer, we have a lot of businesses that are going to go out of business. … The industry can’t handle another summer like they had last year.”
COVID-19 cases rose drastically in the fall and winter, and have recently begun coming down again. It’s hard to know what the pandemic situation will be by summer. Fairs are worried that uncertainty will make it hard to plan for the upcoming season.
“We need to get the gray out of this thing and make it black and white, and clear,” Call said.
Jones added in addition to amusement ride companies, many smaller nonprofits and other groups host food stands at fairs and festivals to raise money. He also worries about the social and emotional aspects of fairs. He is encouraging fairs to stay upbeat and plan now because he believes it’s easier to plan ahead and be ready than to not plan and have to catch up at the last minute.
But that may be easier said than done. After so many cancellations in 2020, Call added, many fairs are struggling to get contracts nailed down for 2021. Some musical acts, in particular, are striking clauses from contracts that would allow fairs to get refunded or not have to pay if they cancel.
Additionally, some youth exhibitors are hesitant to plan for projects, without knowing what the fair season will look like. So far, Call said, fairs have tagged about 50% of the beef projects that they had tagged at this point in 2019. He is hoping that 4-H’ers and youth exhibitors will pick up more projects like lamb and hogs that don’t have to be started as early in the year.
A spokesperson with the Ohio State Fair told Farm and Dairy the fair is continuing to plan for several scenarios, but it is too early to comment further, given the pandemic.
The suggested rules encourage social distancing and sanitation stations, limiting capacity for grandstand events, using online ticket sales and posting signage and making public announcements promoting safety protocol, among other things. They also say each event organizer would be responsible for coming up with a plan to comply with the guidelines and address safety precautions.
Call said he and other members of the groups that worked on the plan have talked to fairs in Florida, several of which are up and running, to get ideas for their health plan. He added that even last year, some of the junior fairs that happened were huge, with 1,800 or more junior fair projects.
“We believe we can do this safely,” he said.
Many fairs lost major revenue from rentals in addition to their senior fairs — Call said his fair, the Summit County Fair, is $225,000 in the hole — and many did not qualify for state and county aid programs.
The aid fairs got from the state for holding fairs in 2020 was helpful for getting through the 2020 season, he said, but many are still struggling. Some have had to defer maintenance on the fairgrounds.
“Overall, the financial condition of these fairs is not good,” he said.
There is some potential funding for fairs in the executive budget DeWine proposed Feb. 1. Call is hoping to see some sort of rescue package for fairs, whether through the budget or other legislation.
Call had not heard back from the governor’s office, by press time Feb. 16, but is hoping the letter and plan can be a starting point for discussions about the fair season. DeWine’s office did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Call is also hoping to see more consistency in local health departments’ interpretations of whatever guidelines become official for the fair season this year.
“We need a level playing field — one set of rules for all the fairs to follow,” he said.
Jones added he is hoping to see some kind of plan from the state for fairs and festivals by mid-March. That would give fairs some time to plan for the summer.