Despite delaying a decision until it absolutely had to in hopes that the situation would change with the current COVID-19 pandemic, on Monday (June 1), the Wright County Fair Board reluctantly voted unanimously to cancel the 2020 Wright County Fair.
Fair Board President Ward Westphal discussed the painful decision the fair board had to make…or, more appropriately, had made for them by reasons beyond their control.
“The company that runs the midway is out of Texas and does a lot of county fairs in and around Minnesota,” Westphal said. “We were the last one that hadn’t cancelled and they told us that they wouldn’t come all the way up here for just one fair. That, combined with the announcement that the (Minnesota) State Fair was cancelled, is what led to our decision. A fair with no rides and carnival games just wouldn’t have been the same.”
Compounding the problem were the protocols in place for social distancing and limiting the size of crowds to protect fairgoers from potential community contraction of COVID-19.
Westphal said a typical Wright County Fair is a huge swell of people with a crowded midway and sold out grandstand shows. To follow the guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health, there were simply too many barriers put in place to have a fair resembling what Wright County families have come to know and expect.
“It’s almost impossible to live up to the standards right now for a gathering this size,” Westphal said. “Right now, the restriction of people gathering is at 10. We hoped that maybe by the end of July it might have gone up, but we didn’t think it would be at the level we needed to have with the kind of crowds we draw. Bars and restaurants that have been able to open outside have been limited to no more than 50 people and we figured that would apply to our beer garden and our grandstand. To try to social distance in a grandstand would be difficult and would leave a lot of people out of events.”
Throw in issues with security, sanitizing surfaces every half hour and the safety of volunteers and fairgoers alike created even more levels of concern.
“When you start adding all those things up, it made it very difficult to consider moving forward,” Westphal said. “A lot of the volunteers and ticket-takers we have working the fair are senior citizens. They’re the target age for this COVID virus. We couldn’t see them being out in the heat with a full mask or face shield and gloves on. There were a lot of things that were going against us.”
Also factored in were the expectations that fairgoers have of the Wright County Fair. The one word that many use to describe the fair is the simplest – “fun.” It is an opportunity for generations of families to make an annual pilgrimage to Howard Lake for different reasons – the rides, the food, the events, the demolition derbies, the carnival games, the 4-H displays and the people-watching.
Westphal said that when it came to discussing moving forward with a scaled-down county fair – much less the 150th celebration – it didn’t seem right to move forward.
“Given all the things we would have needed to do, I don’t think people would have had a lot of fun like they usually do,” Westphal said. “People can say, ‘We’re going to miss this event we go to every year’, but it would not have been the same event. It would have been a much more regimented event and I think we would have had a lot more pushback if we had done it than instead of not having it at all. I think there would have been a lot of upset people.”
A final factor that came into play was the most fundamental – financing the fair. The goal of the fair board is to not lose money, not make money hand over fist. While it’s always the goal to finish in the black, Westphal said one of the overriding concerns was that, if it put on a stripped down county fair that was poorly attended, the event could become a financial failure, crippling what fund balance the fair would need to operate.
“Our goal in our financial report is to break even,” Westphal said. “We don’t look to make money. We’re not a for-profit deal. We’re basically a volunteer board. But, there is a lot of investment that goes into putting on the fair. We’re not in this to make a lot of money, but, at the same time, we have to be responsible with those funds. There are a lot of overhead costs that we couldn’t afford to potentially lose.”
The 150th Wright County Fair won’t be bypassed like so many other events cancelled in 2020. This year wasn’t going to be the 150th year of the county fair. It would be the 152nd. The fairgrounds were used as a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers in 1943-44 – the only two years since the fair began in 1859 that there wasn’t a Wright County Fair. 2020 became the third.
Westphal said that every effort was made to try to save the 2020 county fair, but, with insurmountable obstacles in front of them, it wasn’t possible. The 150th Wright County Fair will still go on, but it will be held July 21-25, 2021.
“I know a lot of people are disappointed, are not happy with the decision and would have liked to have seen at least something open this year,” Westphal said. “But, we’re not calling it cancelled. We’re calling it postponed. We’re still going to celebrate the 150th Wright County Fair, but it will be in 2021. We made a lot of plans to make the 150th the biggest fair ever and that hasn’t changed. We’ll be back next year and hope that everyone will come out and enjoy the fair like they have for so many years and make it the greatest Wright County Fair ever.”