By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the time being, Ohio county fairs are on hold for 2021. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has vetoed a bill from the Ohio legislature targeting the state health department’s ability to respond to a pandemic. His latest veto (of Senate Bill 375) rejected a bill which sought to void a health order limiting activity at Ohio county fairs. Senate Bill 375 would have voided the previous public health order that restricted Ohio fairs to junior fairs only.
Lawmakers sought to give organizers assurance their 2021 fairs would be held as normal following a season that in which most fairs in the state were limited in scope or canceled entirely.
Sudden changes last spring prompted fair boards across the state to limit their fairs to only animal showcase for their junior fairs. A health order dated July 30 limited any subsequent gatherings to being “Junior Fair Activities” only. This allowed for 4H animal shows to continue, but prohibited games, rides and grandstand entertainment.
In a statement made at the Ohio Statehouse, DeWine said “my hope as a lover of fairs is for all 88 counties to enjoy a full fair this coming year,” but he added that because of the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic the safety of large gatherings cannot be guaranteed months ahead of time. DeWine committed to working with county fair boards to find an appropriate path forward as the calendar reaches the spring and summer months.
Last year, the Ohio State Fair was cancelled. Of the 94 county and Independent fairs in the Buckeye State, 15 county fairs were cancelled. The remainder scrubbed their senior fairs but did hold a Junior fair.
Rodney Arter, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association Board of Directors, expressed disappointment with the Governor’s veto.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing, but we’re going to continue to push forward,” Arter said. “We have a lot of support in the House and Senate.”
“It’s a bit sad and without a full county fair there are a lot of hurt local businesses,” said Becky Osborne, Warren County Fair secretary and facility manager. “The first fair in Ohio isn’t until June and ours is still five months out, so I think (the Governor’s) decision is premature. But our fair here in Lebanon has already made plans as we did last year, and that’s conduct the junior fair for all of our 4H people. We were hoping to have much more for the adults and lots of evening entertainment but that’s not likely to happen.”
The Canfield County Fair is expecting to hold a huge celebration of its 175th event. Canfield Fair Manager Bev Fisher said the veto is basically saying, “not yet,” leaving the fate of fairs on the table for now and waiting to see where the state will be at in the coming months.
“The July 2020 Senate Bill is still in effect, which means we are still at a Junior Fair only,” Fisher said. “The governor is just asking us to be patient and see what the vaccines do and what the numbers are. Right now, we are trying to move forward cautiously. We are at a standstill, but we are moving forward.”
During the 2020 fair season, many county and independent fairs, including Hocking County’s, chose to operate under the state’s guidance. The governor’s administration and the state legislature were able to get financial relief to 94 agricultural societies.
On June 9, 2020, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and DeWine announced that $4.7 million was issued to local fairs with $50,000 for each fair operating a junior for 2020. Those that chose not to conduct a junior fair were given $15,000, which can be used in the 2021 season.
According to Dicken, on just the junior fair side alone, costs to put it on were over $30,000. With no income, all state funding was put to use, and the fair board was left with “nothing.”
“We can’t have another 2020,” Dicken said.
Senate Bill 375 also would have created an “Agriculture Society Working Group” to review and recommend safety protocols for county fairs and other Ohio festivals. The bill was approved along party lines in mid-December, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.
The introduction of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines may offer some hope for a normal fair season.
“The vaccine could be a huge benefit,” Arter said. “I think the fairs still need to pay attention to health factors and we will always prioritize the safety of our participants and attendees. Still, we need consistence to be able to plan.”
The governor said he intends to collaborate with local and state health professionals about the 2021 fair season, which is set to begin in June.