Sep. 9—The Kansas State Fair was yet another thing COVID-19 robbed the state of in 2020. The event, a 108-year tradition, was canceled for the first time in its history by a unanimous vote from the fair board last July, and the fairgrounds in Hutchinson remained quiet and empty in early September.
But COVID-19 is not stopping the 2021 event, which opens on Friday, and the fair's new general manager says he's expecting big crowds.
Bryan Schulz, a longtime fair director from North Dakota who took over the top job in early August, said that state fairs across the country have been experiencing a surge in attendance this year, and he expects the same in Kansas. In an average year, he said, the 10-day event draws between 325,000 and 350,000 people, and he's hoping for at least that this year.
"They're just seeing phenomenal numbers," he said of fairs in neighboring states that have already happened. "I think people want to get out. They want to have normalcy. They want fun and entertainment. For some of them, it has been almost two years since they went to a concert or were able to sit down with friends and be out and about."
The fair will do its best to keep people safe amid the resurgence of COVID-19, Schulz said, but there won't be any mask or vaccination requirements. Instead, the fair will recommend that everyone at the fair stay masked, especially inside buildings.
They'll be providing masks at entrances, he said, and they're positioning hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the grounds. Traffic flow inside buildings will be one-way, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment also will be on the fairgrounds providing free vaccines and COVID tests.
COVID-19 will still affect the fair, Schulz said, though he doubts most fairgoers will notice.
All the regular attractions are a go, and only one of the grandstand acts has pulled out. Managers for Tracy Lawrence, who was scheduled to perform on Tuesday, alerted fair officials that someone in the group wasn't feeling well, and Lawrence was replaced this week by Sawyer Brown. But the rest of the lineup, which includes hip hop star Nelly, classic rockers 38 Special and country singer Chris Janson — are performing as scheduled.
All of the other events people look forward to every year, including pig races, the butter sculpture, the comic hypnotist, the wood carving demo and the birthing barn, also will all be returning, Schulz said. Cottonwood Court will be full of the usual food vendors, the Midway will be full of spinning carnival rides, the food competitions will happen in the Domestic Arts building, and the fairgrounds will be filled with live animals.
Those who go to the fair to gaze at the big farm implements likely won't see quite as many, though, Schulz said, as local implement dealers are having trouble getting inventory. Several companies and state agencies who usually set up displays at the fair also have decided not to come this year out of concerns about COVID-19. And the fair is expecting fewer schools to compete in its high school marching band program and fewer groups of school children to attend for field trips.
Behind the scenes, the fair directors and staff members will be strained, too. Though the fair got $2.3 million in state funding to cover its 2020 shortfall, it had to furlough staff members in 2020, and this year, staffing is down 25%, Schulz said. The fair is also having trouble finding people to apply for open maintenance jobs.
"There are so many intricacies that happen within the fair," Schulz said. "Like I told our team, there's going to be some things we might not get done because we are a little short staffed, but nobody from the outside is even going to know that."
The fair has added a few new events this year, Schulz said, and one was so popular, it's already sold out.
A new pub crawl, which happens on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 16, invites ticket holders to visit five of the fair's most popular drinking establishments and get a free drink. The $30 tickets for that event are already gone, Schulz said.
Also new this year: a classic car show that will happen on Sunday, Sept. 19 and a "Shop 'Til You Drop" promotion scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 15, where select vendors will be offering discounts on their items.
Schulz said that he hopes people will feel comfortable to return to the fair after its yearlong absence.
"We're taking all the precautions we can and doing everything we can to make sure people feel safe when on the grounds," he said.
Kansas State Fair
When: Friday-Sept. 19
Where: Kansas State Fairgrounds, 2000 N. Poplar Hutchinson
Admission: Gate admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children ages 6-12 and for seniors 60 over, $4 for military members with ID. Those who buy tickets at www.kansasstatefair.com the end of the day Thursday, Sept. 9, can get adult tickets for $7 and child and senior tickets for $4. Tickets will be available starting Friday at Dillons stores and at the gate.
Midway tickets: Midway ride sheets have 20 tickets per sheet, and most rides take two to four tickets a person. A sheet costs $25. There will be six "wristband" days during the fair: on Sept. 10, 14. 15, 16, 17 and 19. Wristbands are $35 and good for all rides all day.
Discount days: Dillons Dollar Day is on Monday, Sept, 13, and people who have Dillons cards can get in for $1. (One ticket per Dillons card.) All carnival rides will cost just one ticket that day as well.
Those who enter the grounds before 11 a.m. on Friday, opening day, will get in for free.
Gate hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday through Sept. 18; 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 19
For more information and a daily schedule: Visit www.kansasstatefair.com
(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)
Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com
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