Geauga Health Commissioner Thomas Quade said the latest state guidelines remind him just how daunting of a task the county fair board directors face in planning a safe event this year during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ohio Department of Health Interim Director Lance Himes recently issued procedures for how fair boards statewide could put on safe events including guidelines for avoiding large gatherings in any one area, conducting livestock competitions, handling food service and organizing amusement rides.
Large gatherings are being discouraged since COVID-19 is highly contagious. The state shut down schools and businesses in March to slow the spread of the virus but allowed the reopening of activities in May after cases of the disease began to level off.
“I can only assume it must be giving county fair board members considerable angst to think of the possibility they could host an event that might result in an outbreak just as the schools were opening back up for the [2020-2021 academic] year,” Mr. Quade said in an email.
The 198th Great Geauga County Fair is set for Sept. 3-7 in Burton. Last year, attendance hit 227,906 over the five days of the fair with the highest single-day count at 66,635, according to fair officials.
Howard Call, executive director of the Ohio Fair Managers Association, said state guidelines are reasonable because they run parallel with Gov. Mike DeWine’s Responsible Restart Ohio plan.
Geauga County Fair Board officials did not respond to a request for comments on the most recent state guidelines.
“They’ve learned, over time, in almost a month how they can ease some of the restrictions yet keep the vitally important ones in there,” Mr. Call said. “As the sciences have evolved, and we learned more about this virus, [the state] came back and rewrote that.”
The health department’s latest guidelines praise Ohio residents for the “sacrifices and incredible efforts” undertaken to make it possible to start lifting some of the initial closures.
As of Tuesday, Geauga County had 361 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 37 deaths, according to the state health department. Statewide there were 45,537 cases and 2,704 deaths.
The health department has recommended precautions such as one-way foot traffic in buildings to help maintain social distancing, masks required for judges in livestock competitions and keeping grandstand seating to half capacity with a limit of 2,500 spectators.
Barns should allow for ventilation, sanitation stations should be placed conveniently throughout the fairgrounds and food vendors should follow new standards outlined by the state for restaurants, according to the most recent ODH guidelines for fairs.
“They’re going to have rides, games, grandstands, all those things,” Mr. Call continued. “I think the document’s very fair, very workable. I think that’s why we’ve seen here in the past two weeks, as we’ve gotten better science and information, some fairs are going online. Some that were going to do nothing are now having a junior fair and some that were having a junior fair are now having a senior fair.”
Since the country has begun to reopen, cases of COVID-19 have increased in some states.
“No one wants to be the upstream catalyst for that kind of perfect storm scenario,” Mr. Quade said, adding that some counties have followed the Ohio State Fair’s example and decided to postpone until 2021, while others are limiting the size of their operations.
The Geauga fair board has yet to release details of the annual event on Labor Day weekend.
“It is my current understanding that Geauga Public Health may not have the authority to pre-empt what could be a significant public health threat such as would be the case if the fair went on without very substantial changes,” Mr. Quade said. “It would need to be drastically different than years past.”
Mr. Quade said his agency is ready to provide any guidance needed by the county fair board.
“One of our foundational responsibilities is to promote the health of the public,” he said, “and that means conveying sometimes inconvenient truths.”