Steele County ADA Malt Stand

In June, the Steele County American Dairy Association Malt Stand set up shop at the Drive-In Dairy Days at the Steele County Fairgrounds. Fair organizers will be taking their layout for Dairy Days and spreading booths even further apart to ensure safety at the upcoming Fair Fest. (Press file photo)

With the drive-thru Fair Fest less than two weeks away, the Steele County Free Fair is working directly with the Steele County Public Health and Emergency Management departments to assure that the event is not just success, but safe.

“I’ve had meetings with Mike Johnson and Amy Caron,” said Fair Manager Scott Kozelka about his ongoing work with the two officials on how to navigate a public event during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “We are working on mapping out our grounds and making sure that we’re spaced out and able to keep everyone safe.”

Johnson is the Steele County Emergency Management director. Caron is the director of Steele County Public Health.

In light of the cancellation of the Steele County Free Fair, organizers decided to bring a taste of the fair in the form of a drive-in event on Aug. 20-23. The event, affectionately named Fair Fest, will feature roughly 20 popular fair food vendors on the Steele County fairgrounds.

Since the announcement of Fair Fest, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a complaint against an Itasca County company that organized and promoted a three-day rodeo that allegedly drew large crowds after the state imposed a spectator limit for the event. Ellison’s action came after the state Department of Health announced that one spectator who was at the North Star Stampede Rodeo in Effie, Minn. from July 25-26, has tested positive for COVID-19 and was infectious at the time they attended the rodeo.

Ellison’s said the owner of North Star Ranch, LLC was upset with the governor’s executive order to limit the event to 250 fans and promoted the event on its Facebook page as a protest against government overreach. The complaint said there were “far more than 250 attendees” at each of the three events.

Ellison is seeking unspecified damages against the company as well as up to $25,000 in civil penalties for each of the numerous violations described in the complaint. Ellison said in a statement that “business owners and event operators need to know that they are not above the law” and that his office will take action against those who put public health at risk.

News of the legal action taken against the rodeo was only one reason why Kozelka said the fair board and staff want to be proactive with the safety measures at Fair Fest. During the Fair Board meeting on Thursday night, Kozelka said that the event is for everyone and that keeping its patrons and vendors safe will remain the top priority for Fair Fest — just as it is for the SCFF each year.

“As long as we have our booths 50-60 feet apart, spread them out in pods of fives across the grounds, and do whatever we have to do to keep our lines from crossing and maintain social distancing — I know we can manage that,” Kozelka said. “I’ve talked about this with Amy Caron at Public Health and she is happy with that plan.”

Kozelka said that the booths will be placed further apart than they previous were for the Drive-in Dairy Days event hosted at the fairgrounds in June. Similar to Dairy Days, Kozelka said that they do not plan on providing areas for people to sit and eat.

“Amy’s big thing is that we will be outside and that we’re not packing people into a set of bleachers,” Kozelka said at the meeting. “Unfortunately we don’t have a fence around our fairgrounds to have a drive-thru thing the same way the State Fair will, but we will continue to take direction from Mike and Amy and make sure we’re doing everything by the book.”

Fair Board member and Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe said that while no one can control what the public will do, it will be important that the board members and other volunteers do their part to promote social distancing during the event.

“I think with the rodeo, they maybe burned some bridges before starting the event,” Abbe said. “If we show that we are following rules, are doing everything they are asking, and that we are out here and visible then we should be good.”

Kozelka said that in the month since announcing Fair Fest that the response from the general public has been positive. He said that nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and area churches have contacted him to see if they can raise funds on the grounds during the event. Kozelka said that no decisions on that have been made at this time.

“We see how important our fair is to our community — we have 30 different nonprofits that make revenue at our fair each year,” Kozelka said, adding that several of those organizations include proceeds raised at the SCFF in their annual budget. “Some of these dollars are pretty big, and when we take that away it’s a real financial hit.”

Kozelka also said that the SCFF has the potential of raising $10,000-$12,000 during the Fair Fest.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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