Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland is moving forward with its state fair next month, though concern for attendees’ health has prompted organizers to reimagine the event, according to Andy Cashman, general manager of the Maryland State Fair.
Baltimore County’s Timonium Fairgrounds, currently a drive-through COVID-19 testing site, will look starkly different when the Maryland State Fair opens on Aug. 27. The county is looking into alternate sites for testing if the fair goes ahead as planned, according to Gregory Branch, director of health and human services for Baltimore County.
As for the Maryland State Fair, “how it looks and what it looks like might be totally different than a normal fair,” Cashman said.
Agricultural exhibitions are set to remain a key part of the fair, with livestock shows and other displays by nonprofit youth organizations like 4-H and FFA. Fair organizers are also looking at ways to incorporate virtual education, as both the Birthing Center and U-Learn Farm will likely not be open to the public, Cashman said.
While infield concerts will not be happening, the Maryland State Fair plans to have a smaller, more spread out, family-oriented carnival, given that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has authorized outdoor amusements to operate at limited capacity in stage two of the state’s reopening plan. Horse racing is allowed, but spectators are not, so organizers remain unsure what that particular event will look like. In addition, a new attraction is in the works for this year’s fair: a drive-in theater, according to Cashman.
“Numbers in Maryland are going very well, but in the United States everything is going the wrong way, so we’re not sure where we’ll be,” Cashman said. “We’re going to work with the governor, and if the numbers are good, and we can continue, and he feels safe, then we’re able to draw some people.”
As coronavirus cases surge in other states, Maryland State Fair organizers continue to examine precautionary measures for the fair. Vendors and attendees alike will probably be required to wear masks and social distance, and people may have their temperatures taken when they enter the event, though most elements of planning are still in flux, Cashman said.
Though Sunday, July 12, represented the 17th consecutive day of less than 20 reported deaths and a testing positivity rate below 5% in Maryland, the state has seen an upward trend in the number of new infections this week. Maryland’s total number of reported COVID-19 cases has surpassed 73,000, with nearly 3,200 virus-related deaths reported. Baltimore County ranks third in Maryland for both number of cases at 8,892 and number of people tested at 91,990.
“Reopening doesn’t mean relaxing, and it’s important that people have social activity, but it’s also important to realize that we have no immunity to this virus,” said Neysa Ernst, nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit.
Other planned safety measures for the fair include stations for hand sanitizer and hand-washing, as well as cleaning teams to disinfect carnival rides after use, according to Cashman. Ernst offered an additional suggestion for organizers in their mission to marry public health and fun at this year’s fair: have a best mask contest.
On a Facebook post about the Fun Fair Food Preview Weekend from June 26 to 28, an event intended to provide a sneak peek of the Maryland State Fair’s food offerings, one attendee expressed concern about “none of the servers” wearing masks, while another commented that “all vendors were wearing masks and gloves.” Cashman, who was there that day, said he was only aware of one person at the event not wearing a mask, but his team addressed the issue with vendors.
“The biggest thing is we tried to correct it right away, when somebody made that statement,” Cashman said. “We wanted to make sure, because the last thing we want is something to happen to somebody or [somebody] to get sick, because we want people to be safe and healthy.”
The decision to go ahead with the Maryland State Fair was made by the state government, Branch said. Event organizers will look to the state for questions such as whether the fair, which in a normal year draws over 500,000 people, will have to limit attendance.
“We really have lots and lots of questions that we don’t really know the answers to, but we’re going to attempt to be ready with protocols,” Cashman said.
“State and local officials will be meeting with fair organizers to discuss options to ensure the event will be safe for all attendees,” Maryland Department of Commerce spokesperson Karen Glenn Hood wrote in an email.
Staff from Baltimore County’s Department of Health and Human Services will be attending the fair to ensure its safety, according to Branch.
“When food and food vendors are a part of an event, the Department of Health is on location to safeguard against foodborne contaminations,” Branch wrote in a statement. “While at the fairgrounds, if staff observe COVID-related areas of concern they will certainly bring those concerns to the attention of the event organizers.”
Both the county health department and health experts have noted that anyone who is at high risk for contracting COVID-19, has regular contact with those most at risk, or does not feel well should not attend the fair, as large gatherings of any kind increase the risk of transmission.
“These kinds of events are concerning, because, by their nature, they encourage people to gather, to socialize, to have fun, creating an environment that almost demands that participants relax practicing the health restrictions designed to protect everyone,” Elizabeth Wang, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, wrote in a statement.
Wang and Ernst both emphasize three main precautionary measures attendees should take: wear a face mask properly and do not touch your face; maintain a distance of six feet or more from other visitors; and regularly wash or sanitize your hands, particularly before putting on your mask or taking it off. Ernst recommends those who plan to attend the Maryland State Fair bring their own hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and even extra masks; they should also avoid people not following these health guidelines.
Both Wang and Ernst also stressed the need for people to be socially responsible to protect themselves and others. This advice is especially important as restrictions lift and more young people contract the coronavirus — as of July 12, the positivity rate for Marylanders under 35 is 83.5% higher than those over 35.
“While you may be young and able to survive this virus, if you do contract it and bring it to someone who is immunocompromised, that person is at great risk,” Ernst said.
“Be thoughtful about the risk to yourself and others before you decide to attend,” Wang wrote. “Make sure you hold yourself accountable for staying safe, to do your part to minimize your risk and keep neighbors throughout Maryland healthy and COVID-free.”