Tough decisions go into cancelling Wisconsin’s fairs

Jan Shepel
Over half of the county fairs in Wisconsin have been cancelled for the 2020 fair season.

Fair board members, volunteers and administrators have had some tough decisions before them this year, with their county and local fair activities being affected by concerns about coronavirus and the safety of their exhibitors, vendors and attendees.

As of this writing, 29 of the state’s 79 fairs were still going forward with some kind of fair, while the rest have decided to cancel. Some of the earliest fairs on the state schedule cancelled early, but so did some of those slated for later in the summer and even into September.

The Oneida County Fair in downtown Rhinelander was the first to cancel. Even though they had a lot of support from the city, there were just too many obstacles and complications. Every fair is different and there are as many ways to host a fair as there are fairs in the state, says Jayme Buttke, executive secretary and treasurer of the Wisconsin Association of Fairs. “We need to respect what makes them unique.”

She said COVID-19 was not on anyone’s radar screen when her group held its annual convention in January. “We do a lot of networking as well as getting together for our big convention, and it was not at all on anyone’s minds at that time,” she told the Wisconsin State Farmer in a telephone interview.

By March and April, when the association holds district meetings, it was clear that this year would not be business as usual. When she held the first of many Zoom meetings for her members, she had 77 people on the call. “From those calls we knew that fairs wanted to continue on and do something; but each fair is as individual as the counties they are held in,” she said. “Each decision had to be made on an individual basis. I am so proud of our fairs. Even if they have been unsuccessful in going forward with a fair, they really tried and that effort should stand them in good stead going forward.”

In some cases, fairgrounds are not owned by the fair board and in those cases the event can be dictated by the entity that owns the venue, she explained.

As the seriousness of the pandemic grew, so did Buttke’s Zoom calls. “We have been meeting that way for 10 consecutive Thursdays and we’ve had as many as 94 people on the call. The goal for all of them from the start of this is that they wanted to have their fair.”

Jayme Buttke

Ideas for going forward were many and varied. The fair association explored the idea of virtual judging. It might work fine for animals or woodworking, she said, but how could it work for food and what does the youth exhibitor miss out on?

Their lobbyist was on the call each week to update them on legislative and legal developments. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the state’s stay-at-home orders, it pushed fairs to work with their local health departments at the county level. Many fair boards devised detailed plans on how to move forward with their events but in some cases “it came down to will you or won’t you be allowed to have your event,” she said.

 “Things were changing from one week to the next and many of our members were complimented on their plans. Our fairs have done an awesome job.” But there was ongoing concern about what would happen if any of the fairs moving ahead with plans were to get hit with a spike in COVID cases. “Just like all fairs are different, all health departments are different too,” Buttke said.

Some of the fair boards had what were recognized as “the best plans” but they just couldn’t get approved. She disputes the complaint that fairs are “just cancelling on a whim” because she knows it isn’t so. “Their summer revolves around those fairs.”

Vendors, carnival companies and entertainers have been okay if confronted with the cancellation of a fair and many of them have already booked their contracts into next summer. “But would they be okay with it all if they were all set up and then the fair was cancelled?

“It’s hard because people want to get out and be there at their fairs. Some people complained that their fairs were calling it off too early. There are different sets of issues for each fair and some of them they have no control of,” she added.

Facility differences

Some fairs have gated entries but others are free and have no fence perimeter. If a fair-related outbreak happens and health officials want a trace-back, the fairs had to look at how they were going to do that.

Many of the fair officials we talked with for this story pointed out that they were concerned that if a smaller fair-like event was held, it would pose financial problems for the fair. Buttke noted that state aid helps to pay for some of the premiums for youth exhibitors but doesn’t cover all the costs – the rest of the fair has to function to subsidize those premiums.

“If you start missing other ingredients of the fair -- those facets that help bring in revenue – will people still come to it?” she adds.

Fair boards across the state also recognized the difficulties that agriculture and other local businesses are in financially due to effects of the pandemic and understood that they wouldn’t be able to lean on those traditional supporters for their event.

For carnivals and midway event operators, the cancellation of fairs is a ripple effect. Normally they have their summer route planned as they travel from one region to another and when one fair cancels, it affects their whole fair season – and their cash flow, Buttke explained. Some of the carnivals would normally travel to Canada, where this year all fairs are closed. Many of the vendors told her that this year they are going to keep their equipment in storage. Some have already booked with their fairs for next year’s event.

Some fairs are going forward in a smaller version, allowing youth to exhibit their projects and animals.

She’s concerned that the loss of this fair season will bring financial hardship for some vendors and carnival operators. “I’m concerned we may lose some.”

Of the fairs still planning to hold an event, many are planning to have a youth livestock show and ensuring that youth exhibitors are able to sell their livestock as they always have at fairs. “They are working with local processors; fairs often organize that,” she said.

Grieving process

Buttke says that when the first fair cancelled “it burst her bubble” and began a grieving process for her, the association and other fair organizers. Now, with various fairs in different stages of that process, she quips that she could add “grief counselor” to her resume.

During the Zoom meetings, she says that other members shared talking points related to comments and reaction they got after their local fair was cancelled.  Fair leaders have been “like family” she said and when another fair is cancelled, they feel for their friends at that locality.

“This has been by far the busiest time I’ve ever had in this job,” said Buttke who took over at the Association of Fairs in 2005. Before that she had managed the Wisconsin Valley Fair for five years, so she knows what these local organizers are going through.

“At the end of the day, the goal of all of the fairs is to be here for the long term.”

Scott Zirzow, president of the Sauk County Fair Board, said that like all other fair organizers in the state, their top goal was to keep people safe. “We had a lot of questions about sanitizing in a timely fashion, the carnival, insurance and liability. In the end it was just one of those things,” he said of the decision to cancel the fair that began in 1855.

He explains that if they tried to hold part of the fair, just the 4-H kids for example, and they didn’t have their tractor pulls and other motor sports, there was a question about if it would draw enough people. If they held those larger events, there was concern that people might not socially distance themselves. Zirzow said that the big grandstand events pull in about 3,000 to 4,000 people and it just doesn’t work to hold those events at half capacity for the sake of social distancing.

“One part of the fair has to take care of the other part. We had some good feedback and some bad feedback after we made the decision. Some people think the outbreak is just a big farce and that it’s all political. Others are very nervous about getting sick,” he said.

Financially, the fair will be okay waiting until next summer to hold an event, which draws about 12,000 people to the Baraboo fairgrounds.

Big decisions

The decisions are big. Any of the big name entertainers who come to the Sauk County Fair cost them in the neighborhood of $40,000 as well as staging and lights. To bring in the Badger State tractor pull is around $20,000. With the concern about whether or not people would want to come to a stripped-down fair, he feels cancelling was the only option.

Danielle Ziegler is general manager of the Dane County Fair, which is held at the Alliant Energy grounds in Madison, the same venue that hosts World Dairy Expo. Both of those shows announced their decision to cancel this year’s events.

While many sectors of the fair including non-profit groups, carnival companies and vendors will lose out in revenue, many are rolling with the changes this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For one thing, part of the venue is being used as a drive-through testing site for COVID-19 and it wasn’t clear if that would be over by the time the Dane County Fair needed the building for their July 16-19, 2020 fair, which draws as many as 35,000 to 40,000 people during its run. Another factor is that the fair doesn’t own the facility – it is county-owned – so part of that decision was out of their hands. All of the fair’s vendors, sponsors and entertainers have been supportive of the decision, she said, understanding that there are things out of anyone’s control.

“Safety is really number-one. It is such a difficult decision but the youth exhibitors have been very understanding. There have been a lot of tough decisions for everyone,” she said.

In Green Lake County, there is no fair board. The fair is run by the county, explains Lindsey Machkovich, an employee of the county who is the county’s fair coordinator. The decision to cancel the early August Green Lake County Fair this year was made by the county’s Agriculture, Extension and Fair Committee.

It was a unanimous decision but still many in the community were “upset, disappointed and outraged,” she said. “We are one of the few free youth fairs in the state and we have a proud and large 4-H presence in the county,” she said.

Decision not made lightly

The safety of everyone involved was of utmost importance and the decision to cancel “was not made lightly,” she adds.

Volunteers worked with Machkovich to come up with an alternative opportunity for young people, but at a June 9 meeting of the same county committee, that idea was also voted down. “Again, it’s because they don’t want people on the fairgrounds, for safety sake.”

Since the decision to cancel has been made, she has worked to solidify plans for the August 2021 grandstand appearances and other fair activities.

When Kewaunee County decided to cancel its 2020 fair, about three-fourths of the feedback on social media was negative, says Isabella Haen, the fair’s secretary. “We did get a lot of backlash. There were a lot of unknowns and we didn’t want to put pressure on local sponsors.”

There were concerns about keeping a venue like a county fairground cleaned and sanitized and the extra help and expense that it would entail.

About one-quarter of those responding on social media thanked the fair for taking safety into consideration and canceling this year’s event. Many of the local people who volunteer to work at the fair are older and one of the concerns for organizers was that many of them might not want to be there at the fair for fear of contracting the virus.

The former Kewaunee County and Wisconsin Fairest of the Fairs said she has been working to firm up appearances at the 2021 Fair with entertainers and grandstand shows.