Minnesota State Fair 2016

Fair visitors are lit by the morning sun in the entrance to the poultry barn during the first day of the Minnesota State Fair in 2016. (Evan Frost/MPR News 2016)

Minnesota's State Fair opens Thursday, after a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the “Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together” isn't going to be the fair you remember from 2019, either. The yearlong gap, and the ongoing threat of COVID-19, will bring a mask recommendation and some noticeable changes to the fair lineup when the gates open next Thursday.

The State Fair will feature the Pronto Pups and the Giant Slide and face masks for many.

But alas, no Johnny Cash singalong for 2021.

But then again, if you've ever heard the crowd trying to carry a tune together on a hot summer day, maybe that's a good thing.

While classic country hits may never die, the Giant Sing Along does — at least in the middle of a pandemic. It's one of a number of State Fair staples that aren't coming back from COVID-19, some for good.

They include the River Raft ride on the south end of the grounds, which will be in the dry dock for 2021. The Go Carts that wheeled around next door are out, too.

The thrill ride Adventure Park that used to stand just outside the Midway is moving inside the neon-lit thrill haven — that's the giant slingshot ride and the Skyscraper windmill-like ride.

Livestock and 4H exhibitor dorms are closed, and there will be newborn animals — but no live births — at the Miracle of Birth center this year.

And Sean Emery, the juggler and joker who ran the shows at Baldwin Park, literally every day of the fair for 30 years, has retired.

"You will definitely see fewer exhibitors, indoors," said State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer. "Especially buildings like the education building. A lot of those groups there are institutional organizations, and some are short-staffed, especially if they are government. And others do have concerns about COVID. If it’s older folks and they’re inside — yeah, that building, there's going to be a whole lot more room inside there this year."

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the MPCA is paring back its Eco Experience exhibits this year, to thin out the crowds. There will also be less staff in the historic Progress Center on the fair's north end — in part to intentionally provide more social distancing.

A number of other state agencies, including the state tax agency, the Office of Higher Education, as well as the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health, won't have booths at the fair this year. A spokesperson for the Walz administration says a number of other agencies are still weighing their participation.

Maybe the biggest change of all will be fairgoers themselves. With COVID-19 cases on the rise and news about waning protection from vaccinations, even the most ardent fair fans might sit this one out.

Jerry Hammer says that may not be a bad idea.

"We are in a place that I don't know that I ever suspected we'd ever be in, and that's discouraging attendance,” he said. “We're telling people, make an informed decision. Hey, if you're not vaxxed, then you're really not safe. You might give it another thought. Either the vaccine or the attendance or both. Please, please do that."

Hammer says it may actually be good for the fair, to curb crowding and the risk that the Great Minnesota Get-Together proves to be the “Great Minnesota Get-Sick-Together” — and gets shut down again.

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