After financial hit from 2020 cancellation, Iowa State Fair hoping for big attendance — COVID-19 allowing

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register

For organizers of the Iowa State Fair, great attendance this year would help fend off another round of deep cost-cutting or the possibility of having to borrow money to make ends meet in the year to come. 

Last year’s cancellation of the state’s largest annual event caused a massive financial hemorrhage of more than $12.2 million, the fair’s latest financial report shows.

The many ticketed events that have sold out, including some grandstand shows, suggest attendance at the fair could be strong. The fair opens Thursday and ends Aug. 22.

But the 11-day celebration comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations in Polk County have quadrupled in the past month and new cases, both in Polk County and statewide, are trending upward again.

A work crew member readies the Bud Tent at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday, August 7, 2021, for the return of the fair.

In Polk County this week, the latest surge, combined with a spike in young kids with respiratory illnesses such as RSV and other ailments, forced Blank Children’s Hospital to cancel elective surgeries, including biopsies for kids who may have cancer. The Beaverdale Fall Festival announced it is postponing the September event until 2022 after putting off its 2020 edition, as well.

Statewide, an average of 500 new COVID-19 cases were being diagnosed daily as of Tuesday. Polk alone was averaging about 80 daily as the more virulent delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

“We’re continuing to surge,” said Nola Aigner-Davis, spokesperson for the Polk County Health Department. “We’ve been talking about COVID for the last 18 months… but the delta variant is much more contagious and transmissible."

More:Iowa COVID hospitalizations mount on eve of State Fair, schools reopening; epidemiologist says 'surge' may be coming

The financial health of one of Iowa’s most cherished institutions and serious concerns for the still-high number of Iowans who either remain unvaccinated or have yet to receive their second vaccine dose put fair CEO Gary Slater and the fair board in a precarious position.

Slater, the longtime manager of the fair, has been stressing to media that he believes fair officials have done everything they can to keep people safe. But he’s also encouraging unvaccinated people to come and enjoy the fair, even as the variant fills more hospital beds.

“In my mind, the world would be better if more people were vaccinated by this time. … In my opinion, that’s doing the right thing,” he said. “For those who are unvaccinated, if they are skeptical. I can understand that. I wish they would have been vaccinated. But we have hand sanitizers, lots of soap and water to wash hands. And there are lots of places to social distance. I mean, there are 460 acres.”

Slater acknowledged the organization is walking a financial tightrope.

"Obviously we live and die on what we make here. We don’t get assistance from the state's general fund," he said. "...Our margins are not big, ever. Even with record crowds, we still have tight margins. So, yes, it is something that is very stressful when you have that type of razor-thin margins."

Are fair's health precautions sufficient?

Aigner-Davis says she's worried the safety guidelines announced by the fair last month are not enough.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that unvaccinated adults wear masks and that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors when around crowds. While fair officials have said they will be following the CDC recommendations, they are not requiring fairgoers to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination. 

Aigner-Davis wondered whether they had done enough to inform fairgoers of the continued importance of wearing masks, maintaining safe social distance, washing hands and avoiding crowds. 

While Polk County has a higher vaccination rate than many other counties in Iowa — 52.5% compared to 47.6% statewide  —  Aigner-Davis said people from all over the state will be attending. She also noted that the CDC has designated 91 Iowa counties as having "high" or "substantial" risk of spreading the virus. Despite its higher vaccination rate, Polk is among them.

“That increases risks substantially,” she said. “Your short-term decisions can have long-term consequences. Three hours of fun can cause you to be massively sick for 10 days.”

Slater said people should make sure they have informed themselves about the risks, and about precautions they should take, before going to the fair. “But if they’re not, it‘s on our website and we can certainly coach them when they arrive,” he said.

He said he doesn’t know what the fair’s financial outlook will be if the health risk or weather keeps Iowans away.

With more than 100 off-season events also canceled at the fairgrounds last year due to the pandemic, the fair’s operating revenues took a 91% dive to $3.2 million in 2020 from almost $34.5 million in 2019, the financial report shows.

“We instantly pulled back the throttle on all the expenses we had,” Slater said, including slashing part-time workers, utilities, heat and office supplies.

More:Iowa State Fair weather: Expect it to be 'relatively nice ... relatively dry'

Slater said reserves and cost cutting took the fair through last year. The success or failure of this year's fair may determine whether loans may be needed at some point to help sustain operations, he said.

“We hope we’re prepared for whatever comes, but we’ll see,” he said.

Elsewhere, officials overseeing major events and celebrations have taken different tacks in trying to deal the virus.

In Chicago, organizers of the four-day Lollapalooza music festival July 29-Aug. 1, which attracts 100,000 people daily, required attendees to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result, or wear a face mask if unvaccinated. 

On Wednesday, just days after it had announced it would require proof of vaccination from ticketholders, the Codfish Hollow music venue near Maquoketa posted on its Facebook page that it was postponing several upcoming shows because of the COVID-19 surge.

Masks and proof of vaccination were not required at the 10-day Calgary Stampede in Canada, a huge rodeo and festival that ended July 19, and at least 129 people had caught COVID-19 by Aug. 4..

State health officials have said the delta variant is two to three times more transmissible than prior coronavirus strains. Gov. Kim Reynolds has advised fairgoers to get vaccinated and noted most people hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

To go or not to go to the Iowa State Fair?

As the countdown nears its end, Iowans have strong opinions on whether attending the fair this year is a good idea

On Facebook this week, Watchdog asked if people would be going to the fair or not, and whether the delta variant would play a part in that decision. Dozens responded, including Laura Ludwig, a retired teacher living in Beaverdale who said in an interview that she's vaccinated and plans to go at least a couple of days.

"I’m excited," she said. "The fair is like magic to me. It always has been since I was little.  It never gets old."

Ludwig said she's "trying to max out my immunity as much as possible through supplements, clean foods, sanitation, washing my hands a lot," and added that she'll be bringing a face covering and hand sanitizer. 

"I realize (getting vaccinated) is a very personal decision," she said. "But I strongly recommend it, because, you know, it’s a pandemic. We should all do our part to stop it as best we can."

More:The sad, mysterious tale of Baby Mine, the Iowa State Fair elephant

Lisa Burgett Gift, 56, a Des Moines east-sider, said she usually goes to the fair every year. But not this time.

She lost her father to COVID-19 in May 2020 after he contracted it in a nursing home. Then her mother got sick with it at Christmastime in an assisted living facility. Her husband, a Tyson Foods worker in Perry, contracted it more recently, even though he's vaccinated. 

"After getting vaccinated, we relaxed a bit, and we stopped wearing masks indoors when we shouldn't have," she said.

Fortunately, she said, her husband did not get terribly ill, but he had to stay away from work for two weeks.

"But losing my dad, it was horrible to lose him that way. It was the hardest thing I've ever gone through," she said.

Don Paulin, 87, of Cumming, said he's loved going to the fair for decades. And if he and his wife were younger, they would mask up and go because they are vaccinated.

But they recently made the decision to stay home because they just don't want the risk.

Paulin said he doesn't envy the job of fair organizers — a role he knows well.

Robert Newton of Indiana, right, and Monterio Causly of Memphis, Tennessee, work on signage for Best Around Concessions stands on Saturday, August 7, 2021, ahead of the Iowa State Fair.

"I used to be on the fair board … so I understand the decisions those people need to make. It's got to be gut-wrenching," he said. 

More:As the next East Side Night at the Iowa State Fair approaches, we ask: 'What makes an east-sider?'

John Price, a musician from Urbandale, said he is vaccinated and masks up when he goes shopping, "But no way am I going (to the fair). The key to controlling the virus is through vaccinations and mitigation. This is going to be a nightmare, and just in time for school to start."

Others took a political stance, saying the severity of contracting COVID-19 continues to be exaggerated and liberal social media companies are responsible for covering that up. 

At least one person who posted on Facebook claimed that COVID-19 has a 99.9% survival rate. Such claims are being removed from Facebook and other social media. Several fact-checkers, including the Poynter Institute last week, have found them to be false.

Survival rates are typically calculated over a long period because death data can sometimes lag for months behind new cases, medical experts say. 

Any persona's chances of surviving COVID-19 also can vary depending on their age, health and vaccination status — and the survival statistics don’t account for that

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.