‘Fair’ or not, pandemic might stifle 63-year tradition

JACKSON, Wyo. — All eyes were on the Teton County Fair yesterday as board members debated what might be possible, or impossible, at the quintessential summer event.

At its regular monthly meeting Monday, the Teton County Fair Board fretted over salvaging the 64th annual county fair, realizing even if they can pull off the 9-day event it may look very different than in years past.

Rachel Grimes. Photo: Teton County Fair

Fair manager Rachel Grimes explained a tense wait-and-see mode for now with a final go/no go decision deadline looming next month at the board’s scheduled June 8 meeting.

“Right now, everybody else is in the same boat and business as usual with their fair. We are paying close attention to our industry associations regionally, nationally, and internationally to learn what they are doing,” Grimes noted during yesterday’s meeting. “All we can do right now is plan for the worst and hope for the best. I don’t think we should make a decision just yet.”

The Teton County Fair is slated to take place July 17-26. Where the county might be in its color-coded ‘Roadmap to Recovery Plan’ at that time is anyone’s guess but Grimes feels fairly certain it won’t be ‘green.’

“If we are on ‘red’ July 1 we are going to have to cancel fair altogether,” Grimes said. The county is currently in the orange phase. “In orange, group gatherings are limited to 19 or less. That number really limits us on what we can do. Exhibit Hall could likely be open, maybe a modified 4H show and sale, possibly a horse show could all be done in orange. But we would have to cancel all night events.”

The maximum number in a public group gathering that will be allowed in the yellow stage has not yet been identified so all the fair board can do for now is wait and hope.

Night events are the fiscal lifeblood of the fair. Along with the carnival, it is the way the board makes its revenue to put on fair. Potentially livestreaming these events would do the fair no good, Grimes says; it’s the ticket sales that are needed.

Grimes said pig wrestling would most likely be impossible to put on safely. Contestants are in close quarters with each other as teams of four would not be able to social distance as they all grapple swine into a barrel. Turn and Burn barrel racing and Ninja Warrior could probably be done safely for contestants but, again, if large crowds were not allowed in late July these night events would be cancelled.

The fair concert, scheduled for July 22 and featuring co-headliners Mipso and Molly Tuttle, has already been canceled.

The carnival is a huge aspect of fair and a big money-maker. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

Some board members feel uncertainty and risk makes fair this year highly unlikely.

“Look, I grew up with fair. I love the fair and what it has always meant to me,” said board member Peter Long. “But these are unprecedented times and the likelihood is we won’t be able to do any night events. An order of, say, 50 or fewer would make it tough to put on any aspect of fair. Not to say fair is not important but it is not ‘critical.’ We should not be doing anything where we are losing money. And what happens if someone gets sick at fair? It would be a public relations disaster.”

Board member Deb Lutz countered, “I think more than anything the people of this community are going to need ‘normal’…more than another stupid Zoom meeting. People are depressed, people are sad, and people are losing their minds. The best gift we could give the community right now is a fair.”

Board chair Marybeth Hansen added that she fears the general public would not be comfortable attending fair and riding carnival rides, for example.

Board member Hannah Bouline suggested COVID might provide an opportunity for the fair to get back to basics by scaling back and putting a majority emphasis on 4H aspects and the community.

Long agrees he would like to see the fair “rejiggered to focus on the community itself at a time like this.”

On the dollars and cents side of things, the board will be hurting if the fair cannot go on as planned. As of now, no advanced ticket sales are being offered but every night event has at least one paid sponsor in place. Those funds total some $28,000 that would have to be refunded in the event of a cancellation of night shows. Another $6,500 in advanced vendor fees would have to be returned as well.

But it could be worse.

Grimes has been in touch with every contractor—from the crews hired to clean the grounds every night, to the big top performers, the strolling clowns, and the petting zoo people. After a looking over from county attorney Keith Gingery on the contracts, the fair board would not be bound in any way if cancellations forced a termination of these agreements.

An 8-year deal with Frazier Shows to put on the carnival aspect would likely just roll over to 2021.

Meanwhile, ancillary events at the fairgrounds like the local rodeo, national bull riding and roping events, and the rodeo royalty clinic/pageant are waiting on go. The twice weekly rodeo is scheduled to start May 23 but that’s not happening.

June should bring the future more into focus for the fair board. By June 8, it’ll either be a hesitant pedal-to-the-metal race to put on the fair or a sad thumbs down vote on being able to provide the community with a cherished annual event.

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