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How do you navigate a State Fair during a pandemic? You drive through

Like other fairs around the country, the Minnesota State Fair looks a little different this year.

For starters, no one can get out of their car.

Over three weekends this summer, those lucky enough to snag a ticket to the Great Minnesota Get Together drive a one-way 1.5 mile route through the fair grounds, a sprawling 322 campus in tucked between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The event, billed as the first-ever Minnesota State Fair Food Parade, held its first two weekends on Aug. 20-23 and 27-30. The final weekend will take place September 3-7.

Normally, the fair attracts more than two million people over its 11-day run, making it the second most attended fair in the country (after Texas). This year, instead of the 300 food vendors selling 500 different food items (80 of which are on a stick), organizers downsized to just 16.

Attendees must stay inside their cars, where they order before vendors deliver iconic fair food — buckets of chocolate chip cookies, cheese on a stick, fried Oreos, turkey legs and cheese curds — directly to them.

Sure, it’s not the same experience — but Minnesotans still rushed to buy tickets once they were available. All 19,000 tickets to the drive-thru fair sold out in 2.5 hours, organizers said.

The $20 ticket includes admission for one car with up to 5 people inside (no limos allowed, though), plus some live entertainment along the parade route and a reusable Minnesota State Fair lunch bag.

The goal, according to organizers, is to give people a taste of the experience — in order to help ensure the fair could come back next year.

“Get your State Fair food fix!” organizers wrote on the fair’s website, which also encourages people who aren’t partaking in the drive-thru to “safely and virtually bring the fair home with the Minnesota State Fair: At-Home Edition.”

“We knew we had to do something to ensure we could come back next year and present the full-fledged fair bigger and better than ever,” Minnesota State Fair spokesperson Danielle Dullinger told CNN.

The Minnesota State Fair is among the many fairs across the US that were forced to change their traditional plans to help mitigate the virus’ spread. As of Sunday, more than five million Covid-19 cases have been reported nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

But the fair changes — and in some cases, cancellations — have come at a cost to organizers, as well as vendors, many who travel on routes throughout the country, working fair to fair to make their living.

“As an industry, we generate $4.67 billion dollars of economic activity. And for all practical purposes it’s at a dead stop,’ said Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, whichrepresents fairs of all sizes around the world.

“How do you survive? It is of grave concern right now.”

Fair cancellation takes financial toll

Canceling a state fair causes a ripple effect throughout the industry, impacting almost everyone involved.

The year-round operations of the 2018 Minnesota State Fair, for example, “generated $268 million in economic impact for the Twin Cities, plus additional unmeasured impact throughout the Midwest,” according to the fair’s website.

Without a traditional fair, “we’re left without 95% of our revenue this year,” Dullinger said.

“We don’t receive any state funding so all of our funding comes from people buying tickets and people going to grandstand shows.”

Because of the huge financial impact most fairs have, the decision to cancel them doesn’t come easy to fair managers.

Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair since 2001, said canceling the fair “was probably one of the most stressful and magnitude 10 on a Richter Scale of decisions I’ve had to do in my whole career.”

“There’s no precedent out there for you to draw on,” he said.

After gauging what the fair would look like with the combination of meeting social distancing guidelines, peoples’ reluctance with going to a normal fair, and vendors not being interested, Slater said the choice was clear.

Iowa canceled its fair on June 10. This would have been Slater’s 20th Iowa State Fair.

Organizers get creative

After the coronavirus hit, fair organizers and vendors across the country were forced to get creative.

The Eastern States Exposition in western Massachusetts was among the first to offer a drive-thru experience in late June. The event — also known as the Big E — celebrates all of New England’s agricultural offerings, rather than just one state.

This year, Eugene Cassidy, Eastern States Exposition president and CEO, organized a drive-thru to help throw a lifeline to struggling vendors and concessionaires. He also used it as a way to help prepare for the actual exposition, which was scheduled for September but is now canceled.

Cars “consistently came through The Big E Fairgrounds” for the June drive-thru, according to CNN affiliate WWLP. The event served “staples including the chompers and fried Oreos.’

“I think it went pretty smoothly all things considered,” attendee Keith Fennessey of Northampton told WWLP. “While sitting there, I had the urge to go to two or three more stops while I was there. It was kind of brilliant in a way. It’s an interesting hour of your life.”

Even though it was a major success, the $8,000 net revenue was a drop in the bucket compared to their $23 million operating budget. “It’s a lot of money to me but in the scheme of running this organization, you can sneeze and spend $8,000,” Cassidy said.

As of right now, Cassidy’s plan to hold a food-based drive through similar to the the Minnesota State Fair’s Food Parade in September has hit a snag: He’s worried the local licensing board won’t approve the plan for the socially distanced drive-thru.

“Without a license to generate the revenue from this drive through, I don’t know how long we can survive,” Cassidy said.

Some state fairs are line items in the state budget, meaning they receive some sort of funding from the state. But that’s not true for all, including the Big E.

After canceling traditional fair plans, not every fair decided to take the drive-thru route, however.

In Iowa, organizers still held some junior livestock shows, which were downsized and spread across multiple weekends and barns on the fair grounds for added social distancing.

“I’ve always said the difference between a state fair and a theme park is agriculture,” Slater said. “Most of the time theme parks are not built around agricultural education and showing the fact that our rural members play a huge role in producing the food and fiber for the world. Especially here in Iowa.”

Iowa’s reimagined offering included only 20 vendors allowed in on 75-foot plots. Attendees had to park on the fair grounds before walking in, ordering from one of the booths, and taking the food back to their cars. The grounds weren’t set up for any sort of on-site seating.

“We did over 30,000 people each weekend we did that, and we’re planning to do it again in September and first weekend of October,” Slater said.

Vendors make changes work

Minnesota’s fair is known for its food offerings, and one of its most iconic vendors is Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar.

Her three stalls through Minnesota’s fair grounds churn out more than three million mini chocolate chip cookies every day of the fair. They’re served piping hot out of the oven, piled to the top of paper cones or, even better, in an entire bucket.

“When the fair was called off, we were devastated,” said Martha Rossini Olson, the eponymous Sweet Martha who co-founded the business.

Sweet Martha’s is also the Minnesota fair’s biggest vendor, employing more than 850 people to work the three stalls every summer. This would have been their 41st year at the fair.

This year, gone is the army of 850 employees working out of three stands, pumping out millions of cookies a day. Now, the business is working out of one stand with a smaller crew: 175 people, who rotate through more frequent shifts, and will serve a socially distanced-friendly bucket of cookies to customers in their cars.

But Martha approves of the new plan.

“I have to say, the Minnesota state fair really knows how to do things,” Rossini Olson said. “They studied many of these drive throughs throughout the nation and got feedback from many of the vendors so they really put together a great drive through. It’s so well organized.”

The parade has also helped the business stay afloat.

“It does help us out,” she said, “We have expenses that are annual, regardless, and it really helps out with that.”

For some vendors, the lack of a traditional fair in place paved the way for new opportunities.

In Iowa, when Brenda Smith Parish found out events were being canceled — first the Des Moines Farmers Market and then the Iowa State Fair — she went into panic mode.

“I literally work six months out of the year, that’s my living,” Smith Parish, who owns Brenda Smith Concessions in Des Moines, said. “I thought ‘What am I going to do?'”

But, she thought on her feet and came up with a plan. The family decided to set up shop on their front lawn and started Fair Food Fridays, slinging Iowa fair classics like hot beef sundaes, jumbo tenderloins, grinders, fresh cut ribbon potatoes and more.

It attracts a line of hundreds of cars around the block — which is good, but still not as much as she’d be making with the fair still in place.

“Eleven Fridays of this equals, for me, what I would have made at the fair,” Smith Parish said.

Smith has also bought a food truck, and named it Fair Food Fridays. She’s held a steady stream of local events, including family get togethers and neighborhood block parties.

“It’s OK,” she said with a laugh, “you get what you get.”

CNN

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