For those who organize major events in southern Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz’s loosening of COVID-19 restrictions announced last week was the green light and glimmer of hope they had been waiting for to move forward with their 2021 plans.
In Steele County, this means the return of the state’s largest county fair.
“People have been cooped up for a whole year or more and the residents of Steele County are ready to get out and have some fun,” said Wayne Steele, vice president of the fair board and publicity director. “We want to make this a great fair because people are really looking forward to getting out – I think we all need this.”
Since the moment the 2020 Steele County Free Fair was canceled last May, fair staff and board members have put all of their energy and time into preparing to “bring back the fun in 2021.” While having the thumbs-up from the state is crucial in continuing the plans, Steele said there is an even bigger component that is still in play when it comes to ensuring the fair will go on.
“We need people to get vaccinated,” Steele said. “The more people that get vaccinated, the less likely that we may have to wear a mask in that 90-degree weather and the more likely it will be that we can still have the fair.”
The fear of another uptick in COVID-19 cases has many event organizers on edge, including those who organize the Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield. Galen Malecha, the chairman of the five-day event, said they had been waiting anxiously to see if they could plan the event in its entirety or if it would have to be scaled back in some way, shape or form.
“At this point in time, as we go through things, it looks like we will have a full Defeat of Jesse James Days,” Malecha said. “That doesn’t mean that things won’t change – we hope people will go get vaccinated and while we know that there will be those who will absolutely refuse to, the more people who wear a mask, socially distance and get vaccinated the more likely Defeat of Jesse James Days can come.”
While the Steele County Free Fair is scheduled for the third week in August and Defeat of Jesse James Days takes place in September, earlier events are also celebrating the positive news. Travis McColley with Faribault’s Heritage Days said they are equally excited for what these announcements will mean for the June event.
“Right now it is super easy to get a vaccine and I do believe the state should be at that 70% number by the time we roll around,” McColley said. “By the time Heritage Days is here, if you are a Minnesotan who is not vaccinated, it’s just because you don’t want to be vaccinated.”
According to the state guidelines, the statewide masking requirement will end when 70% of Minnesotans ages 16 and older are vaccinated or by July 1 – whichever comes first. Prior to that, remaining capacity and distancing restrictions will end on May 28 with the exception of large outdoor events that exceeds 500 people.
McColley said that with the way restrictions are right now, Heritage Days will return and look like the “Heritage Days of old.” As time marches forward, McColley said they will be able to adjust the restrictions they have to abide by as the state continues to open up. Like the Steele County Free Fair and the Defeat of Jesse James Days, event organizers have already been investing and planning for more wash stations and sanitation supplies to make the community events as safe as possible.
“There is no question about it – we are doing everything we can,” Steele said about the safety measures being taken at the fair. “Not only will we have extra wash stations and a lot of sanitizing equipment, but we are working with the vendors to do the same thing to make sure they have enough cleaning products for people to use while walking around the fairgrounds.”
Malecha said they will likely still encourage people to wear face masks come September for Defeat of Jesse James Days, even if the statewide mask mandate has been fully lifted. He said the board will also be meeting with Northfield officials, Rice County Public Health, and Northfield public safety officials to guarantee they are doing whatever it takes to keep the public safe during the event.
“Obviously our No. 1 priority will be the safety of all our participants,” Malecha said. “We are looking to the hope on the horizon so that we can bring a full-fledged Defeat of Jesse James Days back to the community.”
McColley echoed both Steele and Malecha, adding that these major events in southern Minnesota are exactly what the people need.
“After the past year and everything that has happened I think having an event where the entire community (can) come together safely is something we are all incredibly excited about,” McColley said. “It is something we are very much proud to bring back.”