A new electronic marquee message flashing from the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds urges everyone to start looking forward to Aug. 6-15, 2021.
That’s because, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Clark County Fair has been canceled.
A Wednesday statement from the Clark County Fair Board says the decision was difficult but made in the best interest of the community.
“It was not one taken lightly nor made quickly; but made to ensure the health and safety of our attendees, volunteers, exhibitors, vendors, sponsors, attractions and staff,” it says.
The decision was made based on Gov. Jay Inslee’s new guidelines to restart Washington’s economy and ease into public events, the statement says. Inslee’s “Safe Start” guidelines include four phases of approval for increasingly large public gatherings.
The state is currently in Phase 1. A huge gathering like a county fair would only be allowed in Phase 4. Each phase is mandated to take a minimum of least three weeks, and could take longer.
That could kick any final go/no-go decision about the fair into mid-summer, executive director and CEO John Morrison said — and that’s much too late for vendors, exhibitors and staff to rev all the way up and put on a great fair, he said.
“Planning for an event of this size takes months, and we are committed to working hard to produce the best fair in Washington,” the Fair Board statement says.
The last time a fair had been canceled was in 1942, during World War II. The one-year closure was followed by smaller “Victory Fairs” from 1943 through 1945.
The 152nd Clark County Fair had been set for Aug. 7-16. Rumors circulated last month that the event was canceled, but those turned out to be premature. Now, it’s a fact.
“As disappointed as we are, we are looking forward to a better 2021 and bringing the fair to you with all the activities, educational offerings, fun, food, displays and entertainment we have been known for,” the statement says.
Morrison said he simply didn’t see how the fair could happen while social distancing is the new norm and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future. Even after the four-phase reopening is accomplished, he said, he’d still need to think about protecting the most vulnerable fair attendees, especially older people.
“It looked to me like I was going to have to deal with protecting the most vulnerable populations, no matter what,” he said. “Everything we do is the opposite of what Public Health is calling for right now.
“Keeping people apart to the greatest degree you can is effective in limiting the transmission of this disease. Fairs are just the opposite of that,” Morrison said. “You’re bringing a lot of people together in a relatively confined space, whether it’s a grandstand or an exhibit hall or the food court.”
Whenever Morrison pictures the food court, he said, the picture is wall-to-wall crowds. There’s simply no way to enjoy that busy communal experience while being careful about spreading germs, he said.
“In the food court, you can’t hardly move for all the jostling,” he said. “If you had 6-foot separation between each family unit on the midway, we’d be at 10 percent capacity. For us to decide to water it down — it just wouldn’t be the same event.”
Typical turnout for the 10-day fair is around 225,000 people, he said.
Morrison said he knows there will be “strong feelings on both sides of this.” He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever participated in as a fair leader.
Clark County Public Health Officer Alan Melnick thanked Morrison and the fair board for what he called a “prudent” decision in a letter on Wednesday.
“We understand that the fair is a unique experience and draws large crowds together in an environment incompatible with the physical distancing measures that have been effective in curbing the spread of the virus,” Melnick wrote.
“Given … the proximity of the four phases to the opening of the fair, Clark County Public Health strongly recommends the 2020 fair not be held and concurs with the recent vote of the Fair Board Executive Committee to cancel the fair for this year,” Melnick wrote. “This was a prudent decision that was made in the best interests of protecting the health and safety of our community.”
Morrison said the fair board is reaching out to organizations that look to the annual fair to highlight what they do — such as 4-H, the livestock-based youth development organization.
“We’re looking for alternative ways young people who have a project or an entry to show it on our website,” he said. “There are things we’re looking at trying to do to recognize all the time and effort and heart people put into projects. We don’t want to just cancel everything and slam the door.”
But that’s how some beloved vendors, exhibitors and entertainers will inevitably feel, he said.
“Some of our large, long-term vendors have been with us for 35 years,” he said. “I’m sure this will come as a shock and a disappointment.”