The Gwinnett County Fairgrounds’ Board of Directors had planned for what they would do if something like a rainout that limited turnout occurred during the annual Gwinnett County Fair. But a global pandemic was something different.
It was not something they had anticipated in their plans, but 2020 has not been a typical year in the challenges it has presented to various facets of the community because of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve always said: ‘Qhat if we have to close?’ But nobody in the world ever thought it would be something like this,” fairgrounds manager Dale Thurman said. “The rainouts is the only thing you can think of, and we’ve had years where it’s rained every day at the fair, but even though that happens, you’re livestock shows go on, your pageants go on, your entertainers still perform ... but this (pandemic) shuts everything down.”
The pandemic showed just how different its impact on the Gwinnett County Fair will be when the fairground’s Board of Directors took the extraordinary step of canceling this year’s event.
The fairgrounds hosts several events throughout the year, but the fair — which had been scheduled for Sept. 17-27 — is the biggest one held at the venue each year. Its cancellation means there will be no fried Oreos, livestock shows, Ferris wheel, spinning chairs or other speeding rides to enjoy this fall.
“It wasn’t an easy decision by any means,” Thurman said. “We didn’t want to not do the fair, but we continued to watch the numbers on the amount of positives and the virus testing, and hospitalizations and death rate. Everything continued to climb.
“We just looked at everything that would be required of us to do a fair — you’re telling kids to come out here and ride the rides and wear a mask the whole time and stay six feet apart and all of these things — it’s just difficult to do. And, we didn’t want to ever be (in a position) in anyway that we could cause more people to get sick. So we felt it was just better to back away for a year and come back stronger next year.”
Fairgrounds staff spent Tuesday calling vendors to tell them about the cancellation. The Gwinnett County Fair is just one of several fairs across the nation that have canceled events for this year because of the pandemic, Thurman said.
“Nobody was surprised that we had to do it,” he said.
When 2020 began, fairgrounds officials had been expecting a fully booked year. After the pandemic reached Georgia, however, many events cancelled while others, such as the Gwinnett County Relay For Life, tried postponing until later in the year.
Organizers of events that were scheduled to be held at the fairgrounds as late as October are now being canceled, Thurman said.
“That’s a long way off, but they felt it wouldn’t be safe for them to do it and they said ‘Well, we’ll be back next year but we don’t want to do anything this year that will make anybody get sick,” he said. “It’s a shame that you have to do something like that, but the board felt it was necessary to protect all of our friends and fair families and all of the people who come out here to enjoy the fair. We want them to come out and do it safely.”
Thurman said the only activities that have taken place at the fairgrounds since the pandemic arrived in Gwinnett were early voting for the June 9 primary election, which took place in one of the buildings at the fairgrounds, and training sessions that the county did in the parking lot.
There was contingency planning done years ago, however, for what would need to be done financially to prepare for the possibility of something that affected longterm operations of the fairgrounds — although fairgrounds officials didn’t anticipate any specific issue.
“It hits you hard, but we prepared for this many, many years ago what if something happens so we’re able to keep on going without having to shut down,” Thurman said.
One factor that compounds the issue is the fact that Gwinnett has emerged to have the highest total number of cases of any county in Georgia. There has been a total of 11,882 COVID-19 cases reported in Gwinnett as of Tuesday afternoon.
One of the key guidelines from health officials during the pandemic has been social distancing, which means keeping people outside of families and other close groups separated by at least six feet.
“With the crowds we have, especially on the weekends, there’s not room to stand six feet apart,” Thurman said.
There were other additional steps that fair workers, including vendors, would have had to take to protect the health of attendees. Those included screening the temperature of every fair attendee when they arrived at the gate and ride operators having to wipe down each part of their rides that is touched by guests between uses.
Essentially, operators would have to sanitize and disinfect the rides every time riders got off.
“That would be very time consuming right there,” Thurman said. “So, with all of that added together, it just didn’t seem practical to do it.”
That’s why, ultimately, the fairgrounds staff and board decided it was in the best interest of everyone, from from fair attendees to ride operators and vendors, to just call off this year’s event and focus on the 2021 fair.
“It’s better to be safe now than sorry later,” Thurman said.