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Even with Closing Weekend Delay, Georgia State Fair Reverses Pandemic Doldrums

The Fair's 2 for 1 Wristband Thursdays Proved to be a Winning Promotion
Fairgoers eager for outdoor entertainment flocked to the fair during its 2020 run.

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In a “normal” year, when the closing weekend gets rained out, fair managers and midway providers would cut their losses and move on to the next gig. 

Nothing about 2020 has been normal, so why should the Georgia State Fair do what might be expected?  Faced with a rained-out closing weekend, the fair hunkered down, waited a few days, and had the closing weekend the next weekend, i.e. postponed a week.

For Belle City Amusements and most of the concessionaires and vendors, staying on the fairgrounds was better than hunkering down at winter quarters, where the company has self-quarantined since March. Belle City Amusement holds an “only in 2020” distinction: the company provided the midway for the Florida Strawberry Festival, one of the last fairs to be held in Florida before shelter in place orders went into place and all nonessential businesses were locked down.

Easy Choice

“It wasn't that hard of a decision,” said Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements. “We were happy to be back out after all the time. Obviously, we were very pleased to play this event, which we traditionally do not play.” 

The original midway company had to bow out due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Panacek said it wasn't until “around” Labor Day that Panacek contracted with Universal Fairs to provide the midway for the Georgia State Fair. Actually, Belle City Amusement subcontracted with Mitchell Brothers & Sons Amusements for the Alabama State Fair – held in mid-September, another Universal Fairs production – and the Mitchell Brothers & Sons returned the favor by subcontracting with Panacek for the larger event in October.

The Georgia State Fair is similar to other Pandemic scenarios. Fair cancellations are the rule not the exception. The handful of fairs who eventually decide that a fair with midway can be safely presented have to become inventive as they scramble to get ready for opening day once a community finally gives its annual fair the greenlight. “We only had a few weeks to get ready,” said Panacek. “Nobody knew who to get the permits from at first. “

But everything soon coalesced, including the state health officials approving the Belle City Amusement comprehensive midway safety plan, which adhered to CDC guidelines. “Mark and the Universal Fair Team worked very hard getting the fair opened,” he said.  “They did a great job of marketing and advertising the fair and bringing people through the gates.” 

Universal Fairs

Universal Fairs was in a situation similar to the midway providers, with the COVID-19 pandemic spurring the cancellation of most of its 2020 schedule, including the Delta Fair, its signature fair in Tennessee. The Alabama and Georgia fairs went on as they occurred during a time when states were beginning to open up and ease lockdown restrictions. 

“The governor allowed the fair,” said Mark Lovell, president of Universal Fairs. “In my opinion, a lot of fairs decided to cancel too early. I'm not a big believer in shutting the whole country down. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.” 

Although his company's fairs may have dwindled down to just two fall shows, Universal Fairs has produced several consumer trade shows in the southeast with no subsequent spikes in coronavirus detected. “Events can be as safe as going to a Walmart.” 

Of course, state fairs are major events with higher profile and attendance. Any pandemic plan undergoes an intensive level of scrutiny. Lovell credited the midway safety plan developed by Frank Zaitshik, president of Wade Shows for the Delaware State Fair, as the model for the Georgia State Fair plan. 

“My hat's off to Frank and the plan he implemented and encourage everyone to follow it,” said Lovell. “We put together a very strict protocol and used the same information.”

Highlights of the plan included requesting anyone with a high fever or showing symptoms not to attend, as well as people in high risk categories. Signage was placed throughout the midway, as well as more than 200 sanitizing stations, periodic sanitizing of the entire fair and mandated mask wearing – the company distributed more than 12,000 masks to fairgoers. 

Lovell estimated that the attendance actually showed a small increase over last year's fair – local media reported that typically the Georgia State Fair attracts upwards of 75,000. “People were really happy to get out, and they were spending,” said Lovell. “People self-managed, they monitored themselves on lines.  We had signage everywhere so people stayed six feet apart, unless they came in a group and then you don't have to worry about them.”

He also noted that people “were spending big time. We had huge food lines. The food concessions did very well. We're extremely happy with our food sales.”

Happy Families

The fair cancelled its live music acts, as a precaution. For the ground acts, which included Lady Houdini, Wolves of the World, Bob Bohm Magic Show and Pig Races, there was no seating which de-crowded the spectators and encouraged social distancing. “There was no resistance at all. Everyone is familiar with all these aspects by now.”

Like Belle City Amusements, most of the acts and other vendors waited out the storm – a tornado touched down said Lovell, although minimal damage To the fairgrounds was experienced – so they could support the delayed closing weekend. “Everybody wants to work, and there were really no other places to go if you're in the fair business and want to work.” 

As his first time at the Georgia State Fair, Panacek had nothing to compare it to, but said he was very pleased with the result. “The public was very happy to be out,” he said. “You could see they were excited to go out something normal. They're sick of staying at home, just like we were. There were a lot of families out enjoying the rides.” 

The Belle City Amusement midway featured 46 rides. The most popular rides include the Giant Wheel and Rock & Roll Himalaya. “Our Nitro Ride did very well,” he added.

The midway featured a separate Kiddie Land, with 18 rides. “We keep the Kiddie Land segregated from the adult rides, which the parents really appreciate,” said Panacek. “The Wacky Worm, Free Fall and Heliport, which is the only one in the country, were the most popular. We also have a smaller Gondola Wheel in the kiddie area.”

Panacek also praised the racetrack as an optimum venue for the Belle City Amusements midway. The plan Lovell submitted to the Health Department included a more spread out midway layout compared to previous Georgia State Fairs, which the facility easily accommodated. 

Lovell, who calls himself a “glass half full kind of guy,” hopes other fairs can learn from his experience as the season winds down and the 2021 fair season looms. “We did not see a spike in our fair in Alabama or here in Georgia. If you exercise good judgement, it can be done. This virus is real, and it is devastating. We've lost people in the fair industry. But if you take the precautions, you can put on a safe event. I think people are reacting differently in different parts of the country and I don't think the people in the south are buying into the COVID fear.”

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