The lasting impact of COVID-19 on fairs and festivals

NOW: The lasting impact of COVID-19 on fairs and festivals


ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. - Fairs, festivals, and celebrations bring folks together for laughter, rides, and games. But because of the coronavirus pandemic , that has all changed.

“This is the first time we have had to cancel this fair. I mean, it was devastating. I mean, there were tears. This was a tough thing,” said Jim Caldwell, President of the St. Joseph County 4-H fair board.

Cancellations and postponements of major events have become the new norm.

“From social distancing to the hand sanitizer that could cost us upwards of $100,000. Just to keep everybody safe on the grounds it just became unrealistic,” said Miranda Muir, General Manager of Elkhart County 4-H fairgrounds.

“The numbers are between eight to 10,000 people that come through over the two days of leaper Park art fair,” said Hedy Denolf, Point Person at the Leeper Park Art Fair. “At our last meeting in March, and we realized that it probably would not have been the best.”

“This is the first time. This is very heartbreaking not only for the board but for the community,” said Karen O’Neal, Blueberry Festival Coordinator.

Fairgrounds are left looking a lot emptier.

“Knowing how it affects all the people tied in with the 4-H fair. And all the vendors we have 150 businesses, small vendor, you know vendors and concessionaires and things like that,” said Caldwell.

“Financially this is a huge impact for this county. The tourism. It brings people into this county not only just surrounding cities but states, surrounding states, the hotels the campgrounds, the restaurants, surrounding businesses people come in. A lot of our not-for-profits, this is their fundraiser for the entire year,” said O’Neal.

But some organizers are using these challenging times to their advantage, and capitalizing on creativity.

“We knew we were going to take a hit financially. So we started coming up with different creative ideas. One of those was the Fair Food Drive Thru,” said Muir.

From dishing out corndogs and elephant ears drive-thru style, to totally reimagining the visual features a festival normally brings.

“We have, we've had two weekends, this one included where we have a Fair Food weekend. And thankfully that'll help cover expenses,” said Caldwell.

“One of our committee members took all of the information and like their photos that they submit, and she put it on the LEPPER Park website, so that anyone who was really bummed about missing the fair could go on there and see who would have been there,” said Denolf.

Many are simply making the most of an unfortunate situation.

“We are still looking at trying to do some more community events in the fall. Whether that is health and fitness, you know, in the mornings, or possibly a drive in movie event. We're exploring different ideas,” said Muir.

“In the Fall where parts of the fairgrounds will be rented and that'll help you know, get us through,” said Caldwell.

“The Coronavirus pandemic is really impacted our 4-H programming this past year,” said Robert Kelly, County Extension Director and 4-H Youth Development Extension Educator.

And the 4-H programs that launched these fairs into the mainstays they are today, are also changing.

“To see if we're going to be able to have live show still, they won't be open to the public. But yet our four teachers will still be able to come in and exhibit their project. Some of them we are going virtual, we're given a virtual option where the kids can upload a video or a photo of their project because we want to make sure we can display their hard work,” said Kelly.

Hard work happens in the food trucks, too. Bryan McGowen, owner of Bryan’s Concessions, has been a food vendor locally for years travelling all across the country.

“Every year we go to different fairs all over the country. Indiana, Wisconsin, all the way down to Florida,” said McGowen.

These event cancellations have forced him to shut off the fryers, but he’s determined to make something from nothing.

“I thought I'd put some a little something together for the town and for people to come to hopefully get a little bit of that fun back. We're gonna have music. We're gonna have some bounce houses for the kids. We're gonna have a magic act. We're gonna have fireworks, of course on the fifth. But then we'll have, you know, all kinds of food there. We'll have hand sanitizer stuff. We're still trying to practice social distancing,” said McGowen.

And once summer cools down, many might be wondering what the future holds.

“We're already thinking about next year,” said Muir.

Plans are already starting for 2021, but no one, not even officials, really know what life will be like next year.

“It’ll probably have to have more hand washing stations, more sanded, hand sanitizers, we may need to sanitize more things like the bleachers,” said O’Neal.

“We have to all adapt,” said Caldwell.

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