By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board’s facilities committee is recommending commercial activities at the Dunn County Fair be canceled this year but youth exhibits by 4-H clubs, FFA members and other groups be allowed in some form.
The facilities committee and the Dunn County Fair Board held a joint special meeting May 6 to discuss what to do about the Dunn County Fair in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group met online using the Zoom platform, and members of the public could watch the meeting live. A videotape of the meeting also is available on the county’s YouTube channel.
Deb Gotlibson, president of the Dunn County Fair Board and also president of the Wisconsin Association of Fairs, said the state organization has been meeting weekly using conference calls to discuss how — or if — fairs should proceed this summer.
The pandemic involves a novel coronavirus that is highly contagious. Over a two-month period, as of May 6, almost 1.3 million people in the United States had been infected by the virus, and nearly 75,000 people had died. Worldwide there were 3.8 million cases of COVID-19, and 265,000 had perished.
A statewide “Safer at Home” order was put into effect March 24, was initially set to expire April 24, and has since been extended to May 26.
According to state law, if a particular fair is not held in a calendar year, then that fair is no longer eligible for state aid, and the ineligibility is “forever,” Gotlibson said.
Dunn County typically receives around $5,000 or $6,000 in state aid for the fair, she said.
The state organization’s lobbyists worked with the legislature to pass legislation to disregard the eligibility requirement this year so that any fairs which are canceled will still be eligible for state aid next year, Gotlibson said.
The Dunn County Fair Board had hoped to have a decision about whether to cancel the fair by July 1 because that would still allow three weeks to promote the fair. The fair board has taken steps to reduce costs associated with putting on the fair and has not produced a fair book, has not done any advertising and has contracts in place that can be canceled if necessary, she said.
Gotlibson said that since the Dunn County Fair’s main reason for existing is to showcase youth exhibits, such as 4-H club and FFA projects, that the youth exhibits should be allowed in some form, perhaps using what is known as a “Jackpot Show.”
Troy Steinmeyer, chair of the meat animal committee, said he had talked to meat lockers in the area, such as Spring Brook Meats and Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing, and that the facilities were willing to hold open spaces for this summer to butcher the meat animals from the fair.
Steinmeyer said he had no idea if it would be possible to hold the meat animal auction, but the meat lockers are prepared to process the meat.
During the meat animal auction, people sit in close contact around the auction ring on benches and bleacher seats. Maintaining social distancing of six feet between people would mean that perhaps only a third of those who normally attend the meat animal auction would be able to be close to the auction ring.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are forecasting that the number of COVID-19 infections in the United States will still be increasing by June 1.
A Jackpot Show is when the exhibitor brings a project for the fair in the morning and takes it home in the evening, and the project is judged at some point during the day. The concept can be used for cultural arts projects, such as woodworking, baking and photography, as well as for animal projects, said Deric Wolf, fair board member/animal exhibits.
At a Jackpot Show, the fair animals are kept in the trailers used to haul them and are shown out of the trailers, he said.
When it is their turn to show, exhibitors bring their animal into the barn to show to the judge, and when they are finished showing, the animal is returned to the trailer, Wolf said.
Since it is more than two months until the dates of the Dunn County Fair, no one knows the size of the gathering of people that will be allowed by then, although Jackpot Shows take away most of the people congregating in crowds to watch the judging, he said.
With a Jackpot Show, the number of people can be limited in the barn by having one door in and one door out, Wolf said.
Someone also could be counting the number of people in the barn according to the gathering limitations and the square footage of the building, in the way that some stores are limiting people now, noted Charles Maves, Dunn County Board Supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the facilities committee.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has sent out surveys to all of the judges in the state to see how many would be willing to judge projects either in person or by virtual means, perhaps by Facebook Live or some other platform, Gotlibson said.
The youth exhibitors with cultural arts projects can be spread out in the commercial building if there are no commercial booths for the fair, she said.
The carnival Gotlibson had hoped to have for the Dunn County Fair this year has had all of the spring shows cancelled.
“They are working on plans on how to operate (during the pandemic),” she said.
One challenge would be where to put the rides so that people do not form crowds. Another challenge would be how to sanitize the rides after each group of people, Gotlibson said.
The grandstand shows also would present challenges.
The National Tractor Pullers Association (NTPA) has issued a notice about reduced rates for entry fees and reduced purse amounts for winners, Gotlibson said.
For the tractor pulls and the racing events, people are “shoulder to shoulder” in the grandstand. Would people be willing to wear face masks? How would social distancing to keep six feet between people be possible? And would people be willing to come for grandstand shows? she asked.
Gotlibson said she had been contemplating the numbers, and the only way to be able to cover all expenses for the grandstand events is to have a packed grandstand.
As for the petting zoo that has been at the Dunn County Fair in the past, all the other events have been canceled so far, and the insurance is so expensive, the owner cannot afford the insurance for only one event, she said.
Regarding sponsors for the fair, because so many businesses have been shut down by the Safer at Home order, money is tight, and Gotlibson said she did not know if the fair would be able to have enough sponsors to cover the expenses.
One concern for the county is that if someone gets sick with COVID-19 at the Dunn County Fair, the cost of contact tracing would have to be paid by Dunn County, Maves said.
“It would be a big job (to contact trace from the fair),” he said.
Contact tracing involves finding all of the people the infected person has come in contact with so they can be advised to self-quarantine as well.
Dunn County is expecting a loss in sales tax revenue too, Maves noted.
One person at the meeting asked if it would be possible to have everyone sign a waiver upon entering the fairgrounds so that the county is not held responsible if someone becomes sick.
That would be a question for the county’s legal counsel, Maves said.
Even if people signed a waiver, the county would still be responsible for contact tracing, said Luisa Gerasimo, UW-Extension 4-H coordinator.
Another person at the meeting said he would be willing to call people to inform them they had come in contact with an infected person, but Gerasimo pointed out there are patient-privacy issues involved in doing contact tracing, and that the people doing the tracing must be trained and have a set of rules to follow.
Gotlibson said DATCP has always maintained that waivers pertaining to fairs are not worth the paper they are written on because people can still file a lawsuit.
Don Kuether, county board supervisor from Menomonie, noted by holding the fair, or having events at the grandstand, the county would be “creating a hazard” that could make the county liable in a lawsuit.
The grandstand would be difficult to police. Not having a carnival would make the fairgrounds a less-attractive place for crowds to gather, he said.
Tim Niehoff, county board supervisor from Menomonie, wondered if the fair was only going to be held for the exhibits, would it be open or closed to the general public.
The fair would have to be closed to the general public if crowds of 50 or fewer are all that is allowed by July, Gotlibson said.
If the state is completely “opened up” by then and people can go anywhere they want, people might still be too scared to congregate in large crowds. The grandstand must be packed in order to pay for events, and the fair board does not want to be $70,000 or $80,000 in the hole at the end of the fair, Gotlibson said.
There are too many questions that cannot be answered right now, she said.
Fair officials must take responsibility for keeping people safe, said Martha Peabody, a member of the fair board/commercial exhibits.
Maves said as a person in an at-risk category for severe illness with COVID-19 (because of age), “we are not going anywhere right now.”
Just because the state is “open” also does not mean there will be no widespread community spread of the coronavirus, especially if people do not follow the recommendations of washing their hands frequently, wearing a face mask and keeping six feet of distance between people.
Fair board members and facilities committee members agreed it would perhaps be best to focus on youth exhibits for this year’s Dunn County Fair.
With a Jackpot Show, the situations where one-on-one is required for judging can be managed in such a way to keep the judges safe and the exhibitors safe, Gotlibson said, noting fair officials still need to find out if the fair superintendents would be willing to work.
A “virtual” show for fair exhibitors might also be a possibility, she said.
If people cannot come to the fair to watch the exhibitors show their animals, would it be possible to live-stream the judging so members of the public could watch? Niehoff asked
UW-Extension has some nice equipment that can be used for live-streaming, Gerasimo said.
The facilities committee recommendation will be sent to the executive committee, and the executive committee will consider whether to send a recommendation to the Dunn County Board, Maves explained.
Time is limited before the county board’s May meeting, so that is the reason for the special joint meeting with the fair board and the facilities committee, he said.
The grandstand and the carnival should be canceled because of the health risk and the financial risk, and the fair should be a modified youth exhibit fair, Kuether said.
Niehoff said he agreed there was too much risk with the grandstand and the midway but that providing a fair experience for the young people would be important.
The kids have — or are — putting quite a lot of work into their projects, but there is quite a lot of financial risk and no value in keeping the grandstand or the carnival, said Mike Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee.
Ron Score, county board supervisor from Boyceville and a member of the facilities committee, said he agreed, as long as whatever part of the fairgrounds are used could be organized well enough to maintain the proper spacing.
Score also said he believed food should not be served at the fairgrounds.
Gotlibson said she was still hoping there would be a way for the 4-H clubs to have the 4-H food stand because it is a major fund raiser for the clubs, although it was not clear how the clubs would make much money if the general public cannot attend or there is nothing to attract the general public, such as grandstand shows or a carnival.
The Dunn County Board’s facilities committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend canceling the grandstand activities, the carnival and the commercial exhibits in the commercial building for this year’s Dunn County Fair in July.
The motion did not include any language pertaining to the commercial food trucks that set up at the fair or the food stand operated by the Farm Bureau.
The executive committee was scheduled to meet on May 13.
The Dunn County Board’s next meeting is May 20.