Delaware State Fair opens in ‘uncharted waters’

One year after celebrating its 100th birthday, the Delaware State Fair cautiously opens with lots of restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Members of the Delaware State Fair Junior Fair Board

Members of the Delaware State Fair Junior Fair Board prepare signage in a pavilion used for livestock shows. (Courtesy of Delaware State Fair)

Workers at the Delaware State Fair are accustomed to warning visitors about how to protect themselves while visiting the fairgrounds. On a normal year, that’s meant lots of messaging about staying cool and drinking lots of water during the event which always seems to coincide with the hottest ten days in July.

But the warnings are very different this year. “We really focused on three main areas, one is making sure we’ve got social distancing, encouraging folks to wash hands, use the hand sanitizers,” said Danny Aguilar, the fair’s assistant GM and director of marketing. Visitors will find additional hand washing stations spread around the fairgrounds. People will also be required to keep six feet social distance from others not in their group, and everyone will be required to wear a face covering.

Most state fairs around the country have been canceled, but Aguilar said after working with state officials and creating a 67-page page operations plan, they decided Delaware’s fair will go on.

“We’re in somewhat uncharted waters in a way,” he said. “We’re one of the largest fairs starting in the country, and we’ve been working closely and looking at the guidelines at Disney World, Universal, and once again implementing many of the recommendations and suggestions from the CDC.”

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“We are really impressed with what they have been able to come up with,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the state Div. of Public Health. “The state fair has worked very closely with public health and the department of agriculture and others to get a safe plan in place.”

That plan included the cancellation of the entire schedule of nightly headlining concerts by acts including singers Hank Williams Jr. and Dierks Bentley as well as comedian Jim Gaffigan. “We canceled our concerts because we knew there was no way to do any social distancing. So that was the first step for us in recognizing what would work and what would not from a safety protocol standpoint,” Aguilar said.

Organizers are also trying to spread out attendance throughout the day. Because it’s usually so hot during the fair’s run, most visitors wait to go until nighttime when it’s cooler. But because of lowered capacity limits, the fair is offering free admission in the morning, and half-price admission in the early afternoon to encourage more people to come during the day.

Animal exhibitors are also being spread out. Typically swine and sheep would be kept together in the same pavilion. This year, animals are being spread out to easier allow for social distancing. Because of that, sheep will be kept in the building for the first five days, then they’ll move out to allow space for the sheep. “The exhibitors are just very appreciative for the opportunity,” Aguilar said. “As you can imagine, there’s considerable investment, time investment, money investment, in raising livestock and the opportunity to show these animals.” The fair will also host its first-ever virtual livestock auction to sell off animals on display.

With all these restrictions and changes, he says they’re expecting fewer people to attend. “Last year was our centennial celebration, and we had a record-breaking 328,000. We’re not expecting 328,000 folks to be in attendance,” he said.

While it won’t be the typical state fair Delawareans have attended for 100 years, organizers are optimistic it will still be a success. “We’re optimistic, we’re doing our best efforts to make sure it’s a safe, fun, enjoyable and educational experience,” Aguilar said.

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The state fair runs July 23 through Aug. 1.

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