Wisconsin county fairs gearing up to return this summer

Hope Kirwan
Wisconsin Public Radio
Over half of the county fairs in Wisconsin were cancelled for the 2020 fair season.

With the Wisconsin State Fair returning this summer, county fairs around the state are also gearing up to return to in-person events this year.

Tom Barnett is coordinator of the Oneida County Fair. His county was one of many that decided to cancel its fair last year due to concerns about COVID-19. But Barnett said they decided at the start of this year that they would be bringing back the fair no matter what in 2021.

"We were counting on the vaccine to come out and people feeling more comfortable," Barnett said. "So we decided way back then that one way or another ... that we were going to have a fair."

Barnett said the county fair committee tried to keep some fair traditions alive through social media last year, even hosting a livestream version of their annual "Sexiest Men's Legs In a Kilt" contest. 

He said more community members participated than they expected, but many residents are eager to see the fair return in person.

Kathy Ambrosius, administrator of the Brown County Fair, said fair organizers across the state feel the same way. 

She said it was "emotional and stressful" for many organizers to see so many fairs cancel in 2020.

"All of the fairs that I’m aware of are onboard to have their fair this year," Ambrosius said. "We are one big fair family. We all share things back and forth and we’re very optimistic this will be a great year for all of us."

Brown County was one of the few who hosted a fair last summer, and Ambrosius said they’re planning to follow many of the same safety protocols during this year’s event.

"We bought a lot of equipment like sanitizer stands, those types of items. That’s all brought us into this year," Ambrosius said. "We’ll be using those same safety equipment, the same signage, and still have the hand sanitizers."

Like many local fairs, Ambrosius said Brown County relies on sponsors to help cover event costs. She said they lost a few business sponsors in 2020 due to the economic impact of the pandemic, but others stepped up their donations to cover the losses.

Barnett said losing business sponsorships was one of the major reasons the Oneida County group chose to cancel last year’s event. 

But his fair committee decided to try something new this year, holding a 12-hour livestreamed telethon to raise money for the event. Barnett said they brought in around $7,500 in donations.

"The community really came together," Barnett said. "We had a lot of just your average citizen donating money. We had businesses stopping in personally with a check. It was just fantastic. They were coming to us and showing that they wanted to continue their support of us."

Barnett said this year’s fair will look largely the same as previous years, but with increased handwashing stations and sanitizing procedures to try to prevent virus spread. 

He said at this point in the pandemic, fair organizers feel it’s up to individuals to take personal responsibility for following public health recommendations.

"We are pretty confident that people are aware of the safety precautions that need to be taken, if there are any at that point," Barnett said.

This article was republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio.