TALLMADGE — Sunshine, blue skies and a light breeze greeted attendees at the opening day of the Summit County Fair on Wednesday afternoon, but there was plenty to remind the socially distanced crowds that this was no ordinary day at the fair.
As visitors drove up the gravel path to the fairgrounds, they saw a digital road construction sign reminding them to wear a mask and maintain separation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People of all ages were wearing masks or face coverings and signs were set up throughout the grounds reminding people to socially distance and to sanitize their hands.
The county fair was allowed to move forward with its shortened five-day schedule even after Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday announced he was canceling all full fairs statewide and replacing them with junior fairs starting Friday. The governor said he felt it was unfair to shut down fairs that were slated to begin before Friday.
As she walked around the fairgrounds with her three young daughters, Michelle Russell of Tallmadge said she was happy that the fair had many of the traditional attractions. She had thought the fair was only going to show animals but was pleased to learn that it would still have rides, games and food.
"I’m super thrilled that we can come and enjoy our day and some sort of normalcy," said Russell, who noted she grew up going to the county fair and added her daughters "love the fair."
Though only attendees age 10 and older are required to wear masks, Russell’s three daughters — a 6-year-old and twin 4-year-olds — all had their faces covered.
Russell said she had her children wear masks so there was "one less thing to worry about so we can go and have fun." She added she was comfortable with bringing her children to the fair because she felt event organizers had done a lot of work to make the experience safe.
Inside the cattle barn, Riley Mertz, 16, who is in her third year of showing animals at the fair, said she felt "lucky to be here," particularly since her cousin’s fair was canceled. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked adjustments in how animals are cared for inside the barn, according to Riley.
Riley said the new rules mean she can’t help other young exhibitors with their animals and they cannot assist her either. They also have to take turns washing their animals instead of being able to clean multiple animals at the same time.
"I think we’ve really made it work," said Riley, who will be a junior at Norton High School this fall. "We’ve found a way to come together in all of this."
Fair-goer Bob Younker admitted that he and his wife, Irene, were "a little reluctant" about attending, but he said they were pleased with how the day was going.
Then Younker conceded that he is biased because his daughter Theresa Call is vice president of the Fair Board.
"I think they’ve done a really good job," said Younker, and he added that "99 percent" of the people he saw were wearing masks.
The number of people in attendance was fairly sparse, but it appeared that 90-95 percent of people on the fairgrounds were donning some type of face covering Wednesday afternoon. Of the small percentage of people who were not wearing masks, many at least had face coverings on their person. Public address announcements advised fairgoers that mask wearing was mandatory, even on the rides.
Children attending the fair were getting a crash course in practicing good hygiene. Workers at the carousel ride were seen sanitizing the poles and handles on the toy horses.
Operators at the games said they had youngsters use hand sanitizer before picking up basketballs, softballs and toy fishing poles.
Jojo Buckhout, who was working at the Fishy Fish game, said she had children sanitize their hands before and after each game, and then only allowed four children to participate in an area that would normally accommodate eight youngsters.
Buckhout said business was "picking up slowly" right after hosting a game for a group of young children. She said that activity was slower than last year but felt there was a "decent" amount of business, particularly since this year’s fair started a day later than normal.
Other exhibitors also said they were happy to see the fair moving forward.
Chris Faith and her daughter Carie Faith-Errigo are in their third year selling crocheted kitchen towels at the fair.
"We love the Summit County Fair," said Chris Faith. "I would come just for the food."
Aside from that, she had no concerns.
"As long as you social distance, I think you’re good," noted Chris Faith. "We’re not afraid at all."
Faith-Errigo said they were afraid that attendance would be down due to COVID-19.
"We’re hoping they all come out," she said.
The two added they are missing out on exhibiting at eight or nine other fairs or events that have been canceled.
Andrea Hetzel, of Fox Den Farm on Young Road in Stow, said she typically brings her goats to events, but this year is a vendor selling soap made from goat’s milk. She noted COVID-19 meant her goats had to stay home.
Even so, her children are showing their animals and she said it would’ve been "unfortunate" for them if the fair had been canceled.
Hetzel said wearing a mask makes it tough to have conversations with visitors.
"It’s just hard to communicate [and] be human with people if your face is covered," said Hetzel.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.
What: Summit County Fair
Where: Summit County Fairgrounds, 229 E. Howe Road in Tallmadge
When: Wednesday through Sunday. Rides and concessions open daily at noon through 11 p.m.
Cost: Admission is $7 for ages 9 and older, $3 for ages 2 to 8. An all-day ride pass is $15. Online tickets are encouraged: www.summitfair.com/faireverything.html
Among the changes this year:
? The daily capacity has been decreased from 15,000 to 5,000.
? The grandstand will be at half capacity, allowing 1,487 with families sitting together and others 6 feet apart.
? Masks will be required to enter and stay at the fair for those ages 10 and older, unless there is a medical reason. Social distancing will be required. People may remove their masks to eat but are asked to maintain social distancing.
? Rides will have a disinfectant that is good for 12 hours but will also be cleaned every two hours. Riders will be socially distanced.
? Open-class exhibiting will not occur.
? Activities like drag racing, the pet parade, youth park games, Baby Day, Safety Town and the Farm Bureau Museum will not occur.
? Kids showing their animals will be able to bring their animals into the ring for the show, but live animals will not be shown during the popular auction. The auction will not be open to the general public, and kids will bring a poster with a picture of their animal into the ring.