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Iowa State Fair Reopens Amid COVID Concerns

 The Sky Glider at the Iowa State Fair stands still, waiting for crowds to arrive when the gates open for the 2021 fair Thursday morning.
Grant Gerlock
The Sky Glider at the Iowa State Fair stands still, waiting for crowds to arrive when the gates open for the 2021 fair Thursday morning.

The iconic Iowa State Fair is back after being canceled in 2020. While many people are craving a pork chop on a stick or a show at the Grandstand, holding the fair during the pandemic still raises concerns.

Two days before the Iowa State Fair officially opens, the Grand Concourse is choked with cars and trucks unloading tents and food. Vendor stands that will soon churn out fried Oreo cookies, fresh-squeezed lemonade and even veggie corndogs are already standing, and some are serving the early arrivers who are competing in pre-fair livestock shows or just walking in for a sneak peak of their fair favorites.

Organizers don’t know if attendance will top 1 million like it did two years ago, but people are excited to be back at the fair.

“We definitely every year hit Little Hands on the Farm. We always see the butter cow and they always want a corndog. We try to see everything,” said Anna Flowers, who brought her kids for an early taste of the fair before it officially opens.

“It was a huge disappointment last year when it was canceled, even though it was probably the right thing to do, but everyone’s pretty excited to come this year.”

Thousands of families in Iowa and beyond organize their summers around the Iowa State Fair. It’s a place presidential candidates come to be noticed.

Last year, the fair was canceled for the first time since World War II because of the pandemic. Now the sights, sounds and smells of the fair are back, from the butter cow to the big boar and everything imaginable battered and deep-fried.

But the coronavirus never went away and health experts are worried the delta variant could spoil the fun for some.

“It's not that we don't want people to enjoy, but we also don't want to see the surge in cases in our hospitals a week after the fair,” said Dr. Aneesa Afroze, an infectious disease specialist with MercyOne Medical Center in Des Moines.

Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater says there are new precautions in place. Dozens of hand sanitizing stations were added around the fairgrounds. Also, following CDC guidelines, masks are recommended indoors whether or not someone is vaccinated.

“If you're unvaccinated and you need to wear your mask, you certainly can,” Slater said. “They're not required, but certainly encouraged. And, of course, vaccinated folks (it’s) kind of up to them if they choose to wear a mask or not.”

There is no limit on attendance at the fair, or on capacity inside buildings where people often go to find relief from the humid, summer heat. Looking at neighboring state fairs in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the guidelines are about the same.

Nola Aigner Davis of the Polk County Health Department said with the highly-contagious delta variant circulating, there’s reason to be cautious.

“You think about the indoor exhibits and how jam packed those are, even when you are walking the midway.” Aigner Daivs said. “So we anticipate some cases from the State Fair.”

Coming into this week, coronavirus cases and hospitalizationsin Iowa are trending up.

According to the CDC, 59 percent of eligible Iowans are fully vaccinated, which is on par with the national rate. Afroze said that’s not enough to stop the virus. At the biggest event in the state, she said the odds are good the delta variant will reach people who don’t have the shot.

“They say, you know, alpha variant would infect 3 to 4 people. This one could infect 8 to 9 people around them,” Afroze said.

Butter sculptors work to finish their creations before the start of the Iowa State Fair.
Grant Gerlock
Butter sculptors work to finish their creations before the start of the Iowa State Fair.

As much as the return of the fair is about celebrating blue ribbons and enjoying midway rides, it’s also about sustaining it as a business. Slater said canceling last year was a big financial hit.

“The fair lost over $13 million in doing that, and the fair doesn’t have $13 million to lose,” he said.

Vendors at the fair are also hoping to make up for a lost year. Pat Foley and his family run a lemonade stand outside the hog barn. Last summer was the first they have ever missed at the fair since taking over the business in 1977.

“We only have one time a year, two weeks in a year, that we can make this fly and obviously, we missed that opportunity,” he said.

Brian Kreps says he felt it, too. His family runs Stockman’s Inn, a food and beer stand next to the cattle barn that has been in his family for 50 years.

“I've worked here since I was like eight years old, so I kind of grew up at the place every August,” Kreps said.

Like Foley, Kreps doesn’t travel to other events. His business model is based on 11 busy days at the fair.

“From what I hear, county fairs are doing great and so we might make up a little lost ground from last year if this is a really good fair for us.”

Local health officials say they know if the fair is on, people won’t stay home. Their advice is for people to wear masks as much as possible, to stay close to their groups and apart from others and to go when the crowds are smaller.

Even on the first day of the fair, they’re offering this incentive: If you go in and get a vaccine at the Polk County Health Department, they’ll give you free tickets to the Iowa State Fair.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa