Iowa State Fair file photo

In a brief June 10 meeting, the Iowa State Fair Board voted 11-2 to postpone the fair until 2021, due to coronavirus concerns. 

DES MOINES — There won’t be an Iowa State Fair in 2020 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, and in many cases, Iowa’s county fairs are following suit.

The state fair board, in a very brief June 10 meeting, voted 11-2 to postpone the fair until 2021. A number of county fairs had already made the decision not to hold their events this year and more were likely to make such announcements after hearing from the state fair, according to Thomas Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs.

“It’s sad, but kind of expected,” Barnes said of the state fair announcement. “To me it’s not a surprise. They made the correct decision.”

That attitude of sad resignation was also apparent at the state fair board’s meeting.

“These are definitely unusual times,” said State Fair Board Chairman Dave Hoffman as he called for the vote, which was done by secret ballot.

The state fair was first held in 1854 in Fairfield. It moved to its current location in Des Moines in 1886 and has only been canceled five times before — in 1898 during the Spanish American War and the World’s Fair in Omaha, and again from 1942-1945 during World War II.

“This decision is pretty monumental,” Hoffman said after the vote.

“I know it will be a long 14 months until the next Iowa State Fair,” said State Fair Manager Gary Slater. “We tried every way in the world to put together a plan that kept everybody safe.”

In the end, Slater said, it was determined that any kind of fair to be held in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic would be a pale shadow of what people expect from the event, which is one of the largest state fairs in the country. The fair, which had been scheduled for Aug. 13-23, generally draws about a million people during its 11-day run. There are about 195 food vendors and about 600 commercial exhibitors.

Financially, Slater said, holding a smaller socially-distancing fair would end up with the fair losing about as much money as it would lose by not having a fair so finances were not the primary factor in the decision not to hold the fair this year.

And Slater said he will work with the fair board in the next few days to try to put together a plan to hold some livestock shows that would be spread out over a period of time at the fairgrounds. The fair board will then need to decide whether to hold some type of very limited livestock shows or whether to cancel those as well.

Many county fairs are also faced with similar decisions. As of June 10 a total of 46 county fairs in the state had canceled or had made the decision to only hold a small livestock show. Barnes said more were waiting to see what the state fair leaders would decide before they made local decisions. More fairs would be canceled, he said.

State fairs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana have also been canceled in recent weeks. Officials in Illinois and Missouri had not made final decisions on whether to hold their fairs as of June 11.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, in a release issued before the vote, said that “I stand by whatever decision they make. I appreciate that they’ve really been thoughtful in taking the time. They’ve not rushed this decision, giving Iowans an opportunity to respond so they could wait as late as possible to see where we were at in a very evolving and rapidly changing environment. I appreciate them really taking the time to do that.”

At the county level, Barnes said the decision to cancel a fair is not an easy one.

“We’re not there to cancel fairs,” he said. “It’s a sad deal.”

Some fairs have announced they would hold youth livestock shows with only family in attendance but would cancel all other fair activities. Others have simply pulled the plug on 2020. A list of those announcements can be found at Barnes, for his part, is ready to turn the page.

“Let’s put our Christmas tree up and turn to 2021,” he said.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.