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Fond du Lac Fair makes plans to go forward

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
While grandstand events will be postponed until next year, Fond du Lac County Fair organizers wanted to find a way to go forward with a junior show for youth exhibitors.

FOND DU LAC – In a normal summer, putting on a county, district or local fair is a lot of work. But this year, in the world of a coronavirus pandemic, it’s more work than ever. But organizers in Fond du Lac County have committed to going forward with a fair experience – even if it’s in an abbreviated form.

The Fond du Lac County Agricultural Society (Fair Board) decided on June 9 to go ahead with a fair after “discussing every angle,” says Matt Immel, the fair’s treasurer.

He tells us that the big grandstand events like the marquee concerts, rodeo, truck and tractor pulls and demolition derby will be postponed until next year. “We couldn’t continue with those but our fair board wanted to find ways to go forward with a Junior Show. Many of the board members are former Junior exhibitors and it was something the board was committed to making happen,” he said. The Fair Board, he adds, is a group of nine people that “work really hard” every year.

Safety of vendors, exhibitors and attendees to the fair was a top concern as the COVID-19 epidemic developed and spread. Immel participated in the Zoom meetings that were well attended by all of the state’s fair organizers. Fairs grappled with the liability concern they would face if they went forward with a full-fledged fair.

The Fair Board in Fond du Lac (which is a 501 C3 non-profit entity that is not part of Fond du Lac’s county government) explored multiple options to keep the county’s 168-year tradition going, incorporating safety and cleanliness into every aspect of their planning. They weighed input from everyone involved – community members, exhibitors, vendors and sponsors.

Immel says they decided to go ahead with a “Without educational opportunities for our youth, we lose our identity and the heart of our mission,” a press release from the fair stated. “The junior and open shows will continue in a safe, modified format, which enables the exhibitors to still showcase their talent.”

Matt Immel

While the big grandstand shows will not be part of the fair this year, Immel said all of the big-name acts, including Chris Janson and Daughtry, have confirmed dates for the 2021 fair.

It’s unlikely that the 2020 fair will include any carnival rides or games and the Expo Building will not feature any vendors this year. But the fair will offer daily shows from the Sea Lion Splash attraction, Los Moralitos Family Circus, Nick’s Kid Show and Barnyard Adventure Show. Local bands will perform on the fair’s stages. Some mobile food vendors and local non-profit clubs will offer food.

No bleachers will be provided for these various shows, because that would encourage people to sit too close to each other. Attendees can bring their own chairs for the music events and shows. These open-air shows will not include any hands-on activities.

Wayne and Ben Weber wash a chicken prior to the junior poultry show at the 2018 Fond du Lac County Fair.

The modified free fair will be held from Thursday July 16 through Sunday, July 19, which is one day shorter than the normal fair run. Parking will also be free this year but the attendance at the fair will be limited by about 70 percent from what it would be normally.

While there is no charge to attend the fair, people who want to come will have to reserve a ticket in advance starting on June 19 at 10 a.m. No walk-up tickets will be offered.

Immel, whose day job is in the insurance business, said liability is always a concern at fairs. In addition to working with the Fond du Lac County Fair, he’s also a board member on the Wisconsin Association of Fairs and is active with the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, so he hears about concerns from all angles.

Before the pandemic, some of the fairs’ concerns centered around the possibility of an E. coli outbreak. But implementing practices in this new reality is another level of concern. No fair wants to get hit with an “I caught COVID at your fair” accusation, he said.

Immel said that some of the fairs that go on later in the summer – Ozaukee, Walworth and Racine counties, to name a few – are going to try to move forward with some kind of fair experience. For the fairs that are going to try to move forward, checking with people like regular bidders at the local livestock auction has been important. “Our goal and intent is to have a live and in person auction. We polled buyers in advance.”

As 2020 began and the Wisconsin Association of Fairs held its annual convention, no one saw this coming. Then as the pandemic spread, the organization held weekly Zoom meetings to confer about what they were seeing and hearing locally. The board members on those calls were “all over the place” in their position related to holding a fair. Some really wanted to move forward and some saw no other choice but to cancel their fairs. “I felt for them,” he said.

Each fair has its own set of concerns and parameters to work with and they are all different. In Fond du Lac County, the Agricultural Society does not own or operate the grounds on which the fair is held, but Immel said the county “has been great to work with.”

People coming to the Fond du Lac fair will not be required to wear masks and masks will not be provided, but the wearing of masks is encouraged. Organizers will not be taking temperatures at the gate. Social distancing will be requested and they are asking anyone who has a fever or feels sick to stay at home.

The fair’s entrance gates will be reduced and the grounds will be fenced so they can monitor and limit daily attendance, in line with their safety plans. People waiting in lines at food stands will be asked to remain six feet away from others. No overnight camping will be allowed on the grounds and buildings will not be open to the public.

Tables will be provided for people to eat at and they will be cleaned between each use. Restrooms will be open and the Expo Center will be used in case of weather-related events.

Tickets for the modified fair event will be available beginning at 10 a.m. on June 19 via fondulaccountyfair.com or by calling 920-929-3168. The fair will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. On Sunday the fair will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The grounds will be closed from 4 to 5 p.m. for cleaning and sanitizing each day.

Tickets are being required to control the number of people on the grounds at any given time to allow people to socially distance. Immel said that requirement is part of the fair’s safety precautions. Patrons may reserve free tickets for multiple sessions.