Jackson County will host a fair this year despite a recommendation to the contrary from the county’s public health department. 

Fair board members voted 7-2 in favor of holding the fair, which will run July 28 through Aug. 2.

“People have to make their own choice whether they want to come out or not, and we believe the Jackson County people have the right to make that decision,” said fair manager Lanny Simpson.

Fair board president Mark Miller, vice president Owen Hayes, and board members Darcy Hankemeier, Mary Lou Johnson, Mike McLaughlin, Kalli Bormann and Brandt Wilms voted in favor of holding the fair. Board members Nin Flagel and Mark “Sparky” Anderson opposed it. 

The board’s decision came barely more than a day after the Iowa State Fair Board decided to cancel its 2020 event, which draws more than 1 million people in 11 days each year. 

Many other area fairs have also canceled their 2020 events, including the Great Jones County Fair and the Wyoming Fair in Jones County. Clinton County officials have not yet made a decision.

Other local festival cancellations include Bellevue’s Heritage Days festivities in July.

 “This is the official decision,” Simpson said. The only way the fair board would change its mind is by a “more firm” recommendation from Jackson County Public Health to cancel or if the governor closes the state, she said.

“They (the public health department) gave us a letter of recommendation that we don’t (stage the fair), but it’s not closing us down,” Simpson said.

Community Health and Genesis VNA Manager Michele Cullen said the health department does not have the authority to shut down an event, but they can make recommendations to protect the public’s health and safety. 

“Public health is concerned that such a mass gathering as the fair would be difficult to maintain social distancing, possibly resulting in a surge of COVID-19 cases and increased exposure of our vulnerable population,” Cullen explained.  

In a letter to the fair board, medical officials from the Jackson County Board of Health, Jackson County Public Health, the hospital, and Medical Associates of Maquoketa said a coronavirus outbreak would have a “devastating” effect on the community and recommended postponing the fair entirely or eliminating the grandstand and carnival events where mass gatherings would occur.

“Our fear is that if this occurs, our local businesses would once again experience closures or limited services that would set us back and negate the positive progress that we have seen,” medical officials wrote in the letter. 

Iowa State Fair CEO and manager Gary Slater said his fair board considered a variety of factors when considering whether to proceed with this year’s event. 

“The Iowa State Fair’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of Fairgoers, staff, volunteers, exhibitors and entertainers,” Slater wrote in a statement on the state fair’s website. “Amid the pandemic, we couldn’t, in good conscience, put on the Fair when we knew access to emergency safety services at the Fair could be limited, public transportation to and from the Fair would not be possible, the constant sanitization of a seemingly infinite amount of high touch surfaces lacked feasibility and social distancing in lines to get your favorite Fair food or walking the Grand Concourse would be difficult.”

What will the 2020 fair look like?

In recent years the Jackson County fair has ridden a wave of success, nearly doubling attendance over the past decade, setting a record last year with 50,400 paid admissions. The fair board is examining best practices to provide social distancing and sanitization while giving people the full fair experience.

The fair will include concerts July 31 and Aug. 1, as well as the Night of Destruction Aug. 2. However, the fair stopped selling tickets to grandstand shows to try to provide more space in the grandstands, Simpson said. She said people who waited to buy grandstand tickets “probably won’t get them,” but said it is too early to make that call.

The party area in front of the grandstand, where hundreds gather shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage, will be expanded deeper onto the track and the center of the racetrack to give people more space, she said.

Fairgoers can still enjoy the thrill of the rides and challenges of the midway. Simpson said the carnival entertainment has made its own rules to sanitize rides and games.

Also, the fair board developed a sanitizing committee. People will walk the fairgrounds at least once an hour to sanitize handrails, door handles, sinks, etc.

“Is once an hour enough? Who knows,” Simpson said. “But, we’re making sure we are doing what we can. It’s up to the public to wash their hands and sanitize and wear a mask if they want to.”

The parade will go on as scheduled, but there will be no pancake breakfast to start out the fair, the manager said. Organizers, also, are working on queen contest rules because no state fair queen will be crowned this year.

The 4-H and FFA exhibits and livestock shows will look a little different, too, according to Amber Matthiesen, 4-H Youth Program specialist and program coordinator.

“We will be revising our show schedule so animals are only there one day,” Matthiesen explained. “We will also be doing non-conference judging for indoor.  Most other activities will be virtual or in person. We will know more in a week.”