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Holmes and Geauga are Among Several County Fairs Scrambling to Reopen Safely

A photo of the Portage County Randolph Fair.
The Portage County Randolph Fair, Holmes County Fair and the Great Geauga County Fair all struggled to reopen because of COVID-19.

As coronavirus cases rise again in Ohio, with 1,104 new cases reported July 27, counties across the state are faced with difficult decisions regarding their county fairs. 


On May 21, the Ohio State Fair was canceled due to concerns about public safety and the financial feasibility of hosting an event so large while maintaining social distancing protocols. The fair was originally scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 9. Last year, fair attendance was 934,925, with people visiting from all 50 states during its 12-day run.


Fairs across the state are making adjustments to adhere to Ohio Department of Health guidelines as part of the Responsible RestartOhio program as they continue to plan to host their fairs.


The Holmes County Fair, scheduled for Aug. 10 to 15, seesawed back and forth on what kind of fair to hold, and what it could do safely, like many fairs in Ohio. 


Kerry Taylor, a volunteer on the board for the past 18 years, said the fair is important to the entire county since it is largely rural and agriculture is close to the No. 1 economic driver. 


“We really struggled for the last many weeks to decide what is the best balance of best fair versus the health concerns,” Taylor said. “At first we were planning pretty much just a junior fair based on the state mandate and then when those were relaxed, (about) two or three weeks ago, we decided to go ahead with a full fair with precautions.”


That decision changed again July 26, when all grandstand events were canceled due to safety concerns around the ability to maintain six-foot distancing in seating. According to a post on the fair’s Facebook page, the mandate was emphasized during a July 22 phone call with Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Fair Managers Association members. The fair board is also concerned about the financial losses related to the inability to fill seats, which represents “a risk the board cannot afford to take.” 



Ohio’s county fair mandate requires grandstand events to be limited to 50% capacity in terms of attendees; a distance of six feet between seats, except for family groups; and no more than 2,500 spectators. 


There were 313 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Holmes County as of July 27, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Taylor said the fair is working closely with the local health department to reduce touch points and monitor other planned events to keep the risk of contracting the virus low.  


Taylor’s one area of concern is the judging of livestock at auction shows, but the board worked to ensure these potential points of contact are less of a risk. The board mandated masks for the livestock check-in the day before the fair and is encouraging masks to be used throughout the week by all attendees.


Taylor said the board is being very fluid with its planning, watching case numbers in the state and is prepared to change plans on the fly. 


Taylor said it would be “detrimental” if the fair was canceled at this point and instead hopes they shift back to the original coronavirus plan, which would still allow a junior fair to occur, but with no rides or commercial exhibits. 


“We want to ensure that we can create a pathway for these youth to sell their animals because they obviously already have them. We have about 700 livestock projects that actually dealt with the fair,” she said. “To cancel that completely and tell those youth, and particularly parents, that they would have to fend for themselves to sell that animal privately and get it to a processor, because quite honestly, that's a huge problem right now getting farm animals to a meat processor because of the huge backlog that they have.”


Taylor said the fair has plans in place with three or four meat processors in Holmes County, with slots set up after the fair because of the backlog many processors are facing right now. The plan alleviates some of the stress families would experience if they had to seek one out on their own. 


“We hope to be able to do the best fair that we can under the circumstances that are in front of us,” Taylor said. “No. 1, hopefully the cases will go down before Aug. 10, the start of our fair, and we won’t have additional restrictions based on what’s in front of us.”


The Great Geauga County Fair, Ohio’s oldest county fair, released a statement July 12 that states the board is continuing to review the plans for the fair, set for Sept. 3 to 7. 


According to a press release, some events are postponed or canceled due to the high risk of contracting coronavirus. The release stated the fair would be adhering to the “Responsible ReStart Ohio” guidelines.


Editor's note: This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.