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The Coronavirus Shutdown: Texas & Florida Fairs Could Be the Last Until Memorial Day

The Miami Dade Youth Fair, usually filled with huge crowds, is a ghost town after the event was closed on opening day by Miami Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez among rising concerns of the COVID-19 virus. Photo by Scooter Korek.

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There may be no better example of how both rapid and devastating the escalation of COVID-19 has been on the fair industry than the Collier County Fair.

Keeping pace with a growing population and an improving economy, this local Florida fair had  a recent run of successful annual community-oriented events.  In 2020 the fair added five days to its 11-day run, brightened the star-power of its headline entertainment with a lineup that included a Tim McGraw Tribute band, Tampa-based Christian Hip-Hop artist, TJ-52, and Ben Allen, a South Florida Super Group with an intensive loyal following. In addition, the fair boasted a 30-ride, LED-illuminated midway courtesy of Reithoffer Shows.

To say that anticipation was high for this agricultural fair, one of the biggest events of the year for Collier County, was understatement. The Collier County Fair is an essential fundraising event for a range of community centric organizations, including the 4-H Foundation; Boy Scouts; Kiwanis Club and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

But 2020 has been the year of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the same week the Collier County Fair was due to open, many large events abruptly announced they would not go on. Two days before  the Collier County Fair was set to begin, the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair announced its cancellation and across the Gulf in Texas, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo already in progress, shut down, days after the city's mayor reassured the city that sufficient precautions were in place for the event to proceed.

Texas Trouble

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo had taken a number of precautions, including doubling the hand sanitizers stations, stockpiled hand sanitizer, increased its cleaning staff and the frequency of sanitizing common touchpoints including handrails, doorknobs, faucets, and food counters. For the three days of the 20-day event, attendance showed upticks compared to 2019, including an increase of more than 2,000 attendees on opening day.

Then on March 11, Joel Cowley, president/CEO Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, issued an official statement: “In the interest of public health, the City of Houston and the Houston Health Department have ordered the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to close. The Rodeo will respectfully and dutifully comply with the City's order. The Rodeo is deeply saddened; however, the safety and well-being of our guests and our community is our top priority.”

By March 18, local news reports indicated that there were now 62 cases of coronavirus in the Houston area, including one patient who attended the rodeo on February 28.

Meanwhile, in Collier County

But the second week of March, the Collier County Fair was still on track to have its newly extended run. On March 12, after consulting with county officials, the fair opened.

The fair board mandated extra handwashing stations, ample hand sanitizers, put up additional signage and had disinfectant wipes at all the rides. Regular announcements about keeping safe social distances were regularly issued over the public address system.

Carnival Warehouse spoke with T.J. Snopkowski, Marketing & Sponsorship Director of the Collier County, on March 13, who said “we're monitoring the situation closely; we are consistently disinfecting the area. We are not a tourist destination. Everybody who comes here is from the local area.”

Opening attendance was down by more than 40 percent said Snopkowski a decline that persisted through its opening weekend. On March 15, the CDC issued recommendations that any gathering of more than 250 people should be cancelled or postponed for the next eight weeks. The ides of March fell on a Sunday this year and the Collier County Fair closed at 10:00p. It may be the last fair to be held before Memorial Day weekend.

By March 16, the Governor of Florida declared a state of emergency and the Collier County Fair Board posted a notice on the event website informing the public that operations had been suspended and instead of celebrating its first weekend and ideal weather conditions, Reithoffer Shows and other vendors were packing up and going home.

Dramatic Shifts

“Everything in our industry shifted drastically,” Snopkowski told Carnival Warehouse on March 16. “The IAFE (International Association of Fairs & Expositions) sent out an email last night telling how much financial damage the industry is suffering, we're decimated. I talked with the media reps where we placed ads and they are saying everything else is cancelling, all their ads are pulled, not just us. It's very difficult.”

It's a heartbreaking scenario affecting hundreds of event organizers, especially those with March and April events. The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic is as unprecedented as unprecedented gets, unless you count the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans and more than 30 million worldwide. As of this writing, there are less than 255,000 positive cases worldwide and  a little less than 11,000 deaths due to COVID-19.  The US currently has just over 14,000 positive cases reported, and approximately 200 deaths.  More than 65% of those succumbing to the disease have come from three states — Washington (74), New York (36) and California (19) and are almost exclusively limited to elderly patients above 70 or those with underlying health conditions.  The spread of the disease is said by health officials to be very far from being abated in the U.S., and Europe, but new cases reported from Asian countries such as China and South Korea have slowed to a trickle.  Much of Europe and the US is on lockdown and many communities are under quarantine, with any 2020 event not already cancelled, not able to be planned with anything resembling certainty.

“We didn't make it through all the planned days, but there's a nice silver lining,” said Snopkowski. “People were very supportive of having a longer fair.  We put a few days in the books. People had a lot of fun, there were lines at the beer tent. People did enjoy themselves. The spirit was positive, and they are going to keep that memory for the next few weeks as things get worse. They tagged us on Facebook and Instagram, there was a huge sense of appreciation and gratitude, smiles all around. The people who came here had a great time and were thankful because we were a beacon of normalcy in a crazy situation.”

While the Collier County Fair may have been the last fair held in the U.S. for the foreseeable future a three-day fair the same weekend, the Zapata County Fair in Texas apparently ran without incident, although the person who would not be identified at the Chamber of Commerce, who conducts the event, said “it was a wonderful fair,” but would not comment on any drop in attendance due to the coronavirus outbreak.   Zapata County Fair officials did not respond to emails, texts and phone calls.

Some fairs not only were unable to open that second week of March, but the cancellation came at the almost literal last minute.

Almost Open

The Sarasota County Fair was scheduled to open at 2:00pm on March 12.  On March 11, fair management met with the city manager of Sarasota and Health Department officials and went over precautions that needed to be implemented in order for the event to take place and everything seemed cleared to proceed.  The fair board voted 14-4 that the fair should continue.

According to Rory S. Martin, President/CEO, Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Assoc. Inc., preparations continued for the fair, including extensive COVID-19 safety precautions – extra handwashing and hand-sanitizing dispensers, disinfectant wipes throughout the midway, regular disinfectant-levels of all facilities, bleachers, barns, tents and other areas. Workers were issued rubber gloves to wear at all times. Signage instructing fairgoers about the need to wash hands and maintain social distancing were posted throughout the grounds.

The morning of Friday March 13, the turnaround began when the Sarasota County Department of Health issued a strongly worded advisory urging individuals “over the age of 65” or those who had “chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease,” or “traveled internationally within the last 14 days.” to not attend any mass gatherings.

At 1:15pm, 45 minutes before the official opening of the fair, the County government issued a statement that no county employees could work at the fair, which included the security provided by the Sheriff 's department, EMT workers and a fire-department crew – essential personal for any outdoor gathering, but an especially crucial presence for a community celebration such as the annual county fair.

The coronavirus story continues to be a rapidly evolving situation, but the week of the Sarasota County Fair, from the federal level to the local level, mixed signals were being sent about the extent of the crisis. Often officials worked at cross purposes and sometimes the directions given to fair managers were misleading.

“There was a difference between what we were hearing from the county and the department of health,” said Martin. “We were hearing different things from the experts than from the elected politicians, and instead of listening to the boots on the ground, they all seemed more interested in spreading hysteria.”

He added, “we were clearly following the guidelines the county administrators had given us. We are not an indoor event, it's a large expansive fairgrounds and if there's a line people can still easily keep safe social distance from each other. We were sanitizing the area, routinely wiping down rides, and according to the research the virus can't live in 76 degree and higher temperature. It was in the mid-80s with rising humidity and that provided a hostile environment for the virus.”

Extreme Setback

When the county forbid employees to work the event, Martin described the immediate reaction was one of shock, not easily processed. The fair had been well advertised in the area, including local television ads and a mailer sent to approximately 200,000 households. Now, the nonprofit is wading through the return process for exhibitor and vendor deposits and entering negotiations with its insurance company to determine the extent of its liability coverage for event cancellation.

For Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements, midway provider for the Sarasota County Fair, the news was “not expected. We had met with all the local officials and were given the green light. The health inspector was here that morning, inspecting all the food stands and he had collected his fee. We were doing our final ride inspections when they called me up to the fair office and told me the county wasn't going to provide security or EMTs. We were extremely disappointed.”

The company had been on the grounds for five days setting up. The news was such a shock, the Belle City crew didn't begin the dismantling process until the next day. “We needed to let the news settle in,” said Panacek  “We also wanted to give our help some time off.”

The company had been playing a Florida route since mid-January, with weather and attendance on their side and had just completed a very upbeat run at the Florida Strawberry Festival.  The sudden Sarasota cancellation began a cascading effect. Its three county fairs following the event were cancelled, and the company headed back to its winter quarters and will be forced to lay-off the bulk of its workforce – about 80 employees – including the foreign workers who are being sent home to wait out the pandemic. 

Panacek said he's “optimistic” that the June dates in Tennessee and Kentucky will still take place, but the fact is the company will have lost five weeks of revenue-producing fairs. “We'll weather the storm because we've been in business for 72 years, but it's an extreme setback.”

The only Sarasota County Fair program salvaged from its closure will be the auction for 4-H and FFA exhibitors.  A statement on its website reads: “The Fair realizes the time and financial commitment these youth have made in bringing their projects to fruition. Although the Fair is officially closed, we are creating an opportunity for our buyers to support the youth without creating a “mass gathering”. The Fair will allow buyers, exhibitors and immediate family to attend while still following Department of Health guidelines asking anyone that exhibit signs of sickness to not attend. We anticipate that we will not have an attendance of more than 250 people.”

Roll of the Dice

Another Florida March Friday-the-13th fair cancellation occurred at the Firefighters' Indian River County Fair, The cancellation came Friday afternoon, only two hours before gates were to open. The event, celebrating its 40th anniversary, was scheduled to run until March 22 and included country music headliners Mark Chesnutt and Shenandoah. The website stated that no tickets would be refunded, but any pre-purchased power passes and concert tickets will be honored at the 2021 fair.

Fair managers, midway companies and other stakeholders expressed frustration – not so much in the decision to close, but the confusion among the government officials before reaching the decision, blaming mainly the sometimes conflicting messages coming from different sources. Nonetheless, as the coronavirus news worsened worldwide, cancellation seemed inevitable.

“Two days before opening, the fire department and the health department said we weren't going to close, but I have to say when they finally told us, it was expected,” said Jimmy Strates of James E. Strates Shows, the carnival company for the Indian River County Fair. “You had officials telling us to ignore (it), then they were telling us it can't be ignored.”

Like other carnival companies, Strates Shows is switching to hunker down mode and as they head back to winter quarters and ponder how much staff to cut and other grim decisions in order to cope with the new, bleak reality. Right now, everything is on hold.

“If we opened at the Indian River County Fair, the attendance would be so much lower than usual, and then you're stuck running generators and paying salaries and losing money,” said Strates. He pointed out that was the exact scenario – drastic drops in attendance due to coronavirus fears – when another Strates unit played a parking lot fundraiser in Orlando that same weekend the Indian River County Fair was cancelled. “Even if you're allowed to play a date now you're rolling the dice.”

He added, “My assumption is we won't play any dates for two months. But carnival companies are not alone, other industries are all going through this, hotels, amusement parks, everyone is going through this. Fear is creating the real problems and the lack of leadership. Carnival companies and fair companies are ready to help our communities, we have tents, equipment, trucks, a train.  Maybe they need generators, transportation, to deal with this crisis.”

In the many of the same towns and cities in Texas and Florida that cancelled fairs and other events are now on lockdown and like much of the country, bracing for more restrictive quarantine measures.  How long the COVID-19 outbreak will last or when restrictions will be lifted, may take days, weeks, maybe even months to know. For the first time in anyone's memory, the mobile amusement business is neither mobile or able to amuse.

On the night the Collier County Fair closed, Reithoffer Shows posted this sobering statement on their Facebook page: “With heavy hearts, we will close at 10 pm tonight leaving us, our employees, our vendors and our Fair families… without. For the first time in our 124 year history the phrase “The Show Must Go On” just doesn't fit. Our industry has faced so many hardships recently with labor shortages, catastrophic weather events, impossible governmental regulations, increasing fuel expenses and now a pandemic. Not all of us will weather this storm. But the ones that do survive will be the ones who remember our “old school” ways of supporting each other with kindness, understanding, hard work and perseverance.”

As always ensuring the health, safety and well-being of the communities we serve across the U.S. has always been a top...

Posted by Reithoffer Shows on Sunday, March 15, 2020
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