Not all colorful: Warren County Fair will not be held in 2020
The Warren County Fair countdown timer tumbled from 81 days to 80 days Friday morning. But the Fair will not be held until August of 2021.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the restrictions associated with it, the Fair Board made the call to cancel the annual event for 2020.
“It was not an easy decision,” Fair Board President Dave Wilcox said. “There was more than one tearful face.”
The board members called a special meeting for Thursday night.
Wilcox said that meeting was like being in the waiting room at a hospital waiting for word about a gravely ill patient, knowing what the final outcome would be.
The board members are not involved to raise vast amounts of money. “They elected the board to operate the Fair in the best possible way,” Wilcox said. That includes making sure people can enjoy it year after year.
“I don’t think anyone in their heart wanted to cancel,” Wilcox said. “We’ve been running numbers and doing scenarios. It would have been ruinous for us to run the Fair.”
“If you look at the facts and the situation we’re in… it doesn’t matter if it’s political or health-related,” he said. “We’re in the situation we’re in.”
The timing was right.
“We stood to lose many thousands of dollars if we waited,” Wilcox said. “Everything would have been at the contracted price.”
Usually, the Fair draws enough paying customers to offset those expenses. “Admissions… how much are they going to be down?” he said.
“If we give our contracted service providers between 45 and 60 days notice we can escape the contract with no penalty.”
Some of the providers had particular demands – some of those worked in the interest of the Fair.
“We had to agree to roll the entertainment over to next year,” he said. “That’s great.” The board was looking forward to the entertainers that had been booked and will not have to look for and negotiate with a whole new group.
Waiting a month would have jeopardized the Fair’s financial footing moving forward with little chance of changes that would have created the circumstances required to hold a successful Fair.
Even if Warren County were to ‘go green’ before the Fair would have opened, there would still have been COVID-19 mitigation efforts including social distancing in place.
“We had information for if we go green,” Wilcox said. “They were still depending on the social distancing, face masks, all that.”
The Fair is not a place that is conducive to social distancing.
“We count on filling the bleachers shoulder-to-shoulder,” Wilcox said. “The International Association of Fairs and Expositions sent out guidelines.”
The social distancing recommendations for bleachers and grandstands were to leave every other row vacant and have six feet between the people in the occupied rows.
That’s a far cry from the Fair’s expectation of a person every 18 inches in every row.
There would have also been additional demands on those working at the fair.
“There are requirements if you have a public restroom you have to sanitize several times a day,” Wilcox said. “That presents a man-power and a logistics problem.”
“I don’t think the public realizes the amount of volunteer labor that comes in here,” he said. “How many of those volunteers are going to be willing or able to come into a mass gathering like that?”
There are months of planning involved in almost every aspect of the Fair.
“People don’t have a clue of what goes into getting the Fair together,” Wilcox said. “Contracting with waste removal and security. We’re booking entertainment sometimes before the current fair ends.”
Despite the difficulty of the decision at hand, the board members knew what they had to do and the meeting didn’t run on for hours. “It went rather rapidly,” Wilcox said.
He was aware of several regional fairs that had already canceled, but he did not present that information to the other members during the special meeting. “We had a whole list of fairs that have already canceled,” Wilcox said. “I had that information before the meeting and purposely didn’t put it out there.”
He was not interested in making a decision based on what others were doing. “We’re our own entity,” he said.
It is possible, though, that others will look to the Warren County Fair for guidance in handling their own situations.
“In the fair community in Pennsylvania in general and Northwestern Pennsylvania in particular, a lot of people look to Warren County Fair and look up to Warren County Fair,” Wilcox said. “A good many will fall in line.”
They knew that decision would be criticized, but wanted to be very clear with the public.
Moments after the vote, the Fair Board published a statement on the Fair’s Facebook page.
“We made a point of having a statement ready before the meeting,” Wilcox said. “Dale Bliss (board vice president), Linda Fehrenbach (board member and social media coordinator) and I worked on it.”
When the board voted to cancel the Fair, they presented the statement to the group.
“We got it approved in the meeting,” Wilcox said. “As soon as the meeting ended, we told Linda to post it.”
After the doctor came to that waiting room and informed everyone that the patient had died, the board members had to spread the word.
“We wanted it to come from us,” he said. “We didn’t want 400 rumors circulating.”