After COVID-19 led to the first hiatus since 1947, Rice County Fair Manager John Dvorak is optimistic that the fair can and will make a strong comeback in 2021.
While cautioning that the public health situation remains unpredictable, Dvorak said the fair board is already moving ahead with preparations, lining up acts for the grandstand, along with vendors and other attractions.
Drawing in 50,000 to 60,000 visitors from throughout the region, the fair traditionally provides a major boost for local small businesses and vendors. It was one of dozens of large local events that was cancelled last year as the pandemic devastated the local hospitality industry.
2021 has already gotten off to an inauspicious start locally, with the cancellation of the North American Farm and Power Show in Owatonna. Four Seasons Event Center Director Steve Schrot says that event typically draws in 22,000 to 25,000 people.
As with the Farm and Power Show, many of the people who attend the Rice County Fair are from outside the immediate area. With visitors attending from the Twin Cities, Iowa, Wisconsin or other places, it’s a boon for local hospitality businesses.
Large events like fairs and the Farm and Power show provide a major boost to the local economy, says Schrot. “Whether it’s gas stations, restaurants, hotels, there’s a trickle down effect.”
A robust fair could help to make up some of the damage caused by other cancellations. But as vaccinations drag on throughout the spring and potentially into the summer, it’s hard to say whether there could still be restrictions on crowd sizes when the fair gates open.
Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that as vaccinations continue apace, things seem to be headed in the right direction with COVID.
However, Johnson is concerned that with many people still concerned about COVID transmission, it could take years for the hospitality industry to fully return to the strong numbers posted in 2018 and 2019.
"Even if the shows go on, there will be hesitancy for a period of time from some people who would normally attend events," he said.
Much of the fair will be outside, making it easier to stay COVID-safe if some people still aren’t vaccinated. Negotiating indoor spaces could be harder, and Dvorak said that figuring out how to keep grandstand crowds safe could be the trickiest task.
If grandstands can only be filled at a fraction of their normal capacity, County Commissioner and Fair Board Member Dave Miller said that some events may need to be canceled. In particular, the demolition derby is always costly and might not be worth the price if attendance is limited.
County Commissioner Jim Purfeerst, who joined the Fair Board after his election last November, said that the board is preparing for a normal-sized fair, if one with even more sanitation than usual. If it needs to be toned down, the board will cross that bridge when it comes to it.
“All of this hinges on the governor and his recommendations, but we’re optimistic,” he said. “We’ve got to plan like there’s going to be a big fair.”
In addition to traditional hand washing stations and buckets of hand sanitizer, the fair will have its new restrooms to help keep patrons safe. At $267,000, the restrooms weren’t cheap though funding was secured in large part through the federal CARES Act.
After years of deterioration, the old restrooms had become a major turnoff for potential renters. The new restrooms are designed to be easy to clean and maintain and hard to vandalize, while enabling social distancing and meeting the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.