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No Fair

Aug. 6-9 Clark County event gets the axe due to COVID-19 threat

With the county’s health director calling it an “extreme risk” to hold large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Clark County Agricultural Society on Monday night voted to cancel the 2020 Clark County Fair. The decision reverses a May 18 vote by the Society to hold the fair, however, no work had been done since then to make plans for social distancing, sanitation, etc., if the Aug. 6-9 event were to be held.

Meeting at the Neillsville fairgrounds, the Society — also known as the Fair Board — conducted an informal survey of the approximately 30 citizens who attended on Monday. About two-thirds of those who responded said they favored cancelling this years fair, while the others indicated they wanted to see it continue either as usual or in a modified format. The Fair Board held a voice vote after some discussion, making the decision to cancel.

Clark County Public Health Director Brittany Mews addressed the meeting by telephone from her home, and said the fair presents too many threats for the spread of the coronavirus. With no plans in place for social distancing or extra sanitation, she said she would “highly advise” that the event be called off this year.

“It’s unfortunate. COVID is not something anyone had planned for,” Mews said. “Unfortunately right now, it would be an extreme risk to the public.”

In a letter sent Monday to the county Boards Forestry & Parks Committee, which oversees the fairgrounds, the county’s COVID-19 crisis team laid out a list of reasons why the fair should be cancelled, or if it is held, that it not be held at the fairgrounds. With an estimated attendance of 10,000-15,000 people over a 4-day run, the team said the crowd size creates a significant threat for virus spread.

“The large number of people significantly increases the occurrence of sustained, close contact which greatly increases the risk for spreading COVID-19,” the letter read.

The letter also cited a rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the county (52 as of Monday) and the fact that Clark has the highest incidence rate of almost any area county. Also, the county is experiencing self-quarantine “non-compliance” with people who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or who have been in close contact with someone who has.

The letter also said, “Clark County will not be prepared to offer a safe environment for a large gathering such as the fair.” That includes a lack of screening capability to make sure sick people do not enter the fairgrounds, lack of hand sanitation, face masks, etc., and an inability to maintain social distancing in crowded areas.

The letter also noted that exhibitors, food vendors, employees and volunteers would not be prepared or properly equipped, and that the county may face insurance liability if someone were to contact the virus while at the fair.

Wayne Hendrickson, a Fair Board member and also chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, noted on Monday the county board disbanded the crisis team when it voted 16-13 on June 12 to not extend the county’s local public health emergency order. He also said he checked with the county’s insurance agent, and was told the county would not take on more liability because of the pandemic.

“If someone was gonna sue us because they think they caught some virus or something at the fair, that’s a pretty hard thing to prove,” Hendrickson said. “We’re not gonna worry about insurance. That’s the least of our problems.”

Hendrickson said only one judge had backed out of their commitment to the fair due to the virus. He said the carnival that has been booked was still planning to come, but had only one other fair in the state. If that other county cancelled, the carnival owner said they would not then come to Neillsville in August.

The Fair Board voted in May to proceed with a fair, but had apparently not done any planning in the interim for how to provide extra sanitation, separation, etc.

“You should have those rules already set,” said Jason Toufar of Loyal at Monday’s meeting. “How come you don’t have those rules planned out?”

Fair Board member Randy Meyer said it has been difficult to keep pace with ever-changing public heath guidelines.

“A lot of these rules are changing week to week,” Meyer said. “We don’t have any idea what it’s gonna be by fair time.”

Also, Meyer said, the Fair Board had not heard any public objections to moving ahead with a fair.

“Not one person spoke against it,” Meyer said. “We didn’t see any reason not to go ahead.”

Some of the citizens at Monday’s meeting suggested other options for a fair, such as having youths just drop off their exhibits and not meet face-to-face with judges, having animals brought in for judging for just one day instead of for the fair’s duration, and holding the annual market sale in a virtual, online format. However, with only six weeks left before the fair’s opening day and no planning started, it was deemed too late to proceed with alternative plans.

“Who’s gonna take a hold of this?” said Fair Board member Bill Marten. “Who’s gonna take control of that and get it all together?”

Also noted was the likelihood that people may not come as usual due to COVID-19, which would mean decreased gate receipts and other revenue, and a probable monetary loss for the fair operation.

The Neillsville Men’s Club, for example, operates grandstand entertainment and food and drink venues, but with social distancing, could not count on crowds.

“Your grandstand is gonna be down to about onequarter capacity,” said Fair Board President Chris North.

A Men’s Cub member said workers might not be available, either.

“There is a lot of concern with club members being put at risk if they have to work at the fair,” he said.

Likewise, county UW-Extension office employee Val Wood said members of the county’s Home and Consumer Education (HCE) group who normally man the fair’s dairy bar may not volunteer.

“The majority of their membership is 60-plus. Many of the HCE members would not be attending,” Wood said.

Wood also said it might take more volunteers than usual if the fair were to switch judging formats. The exhibitor check-in day is usually the most chaotic, she said, and if changes were made to ensure youths were coming one at a time with their items, it would take far more time.

“Who would volunteer to do that over extended times with drop-offs?” Wood said. “Who is willing to do that?”