Percy L. Lewis III was especially looking forward to this year's Neshoba County Fair, an annual Mississippi event where he races his horses and carries forward a family tradition.
At 42, Lewis has been riding horses since he was 5 or 6 years old. Growing up, Lewis, his brother and a childhood friend would race on a local dirt road. As adults, they decided they wanted to race on a track. It seemed like as soon as they did, Lewis' friend was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
"We was talking about it but then, after, he passed away," Lewis said. "I just went on. I did it for him."
This would have been Lewis' third year racing on the Neshoba County Fair track near Philadelphia, Mississippi. But the fair known as Mississippi's giant house party, like hundreds of others, is canceled this year. For organizations whose business models are built on gathering large groups of people, the pandemic has wiped out their ability to carry on while keeping fairgoers, volunteers and staff safe.
Without the annual events, vendors, hotels and other small local businesses miss out on income they rely on. School-age children who spent the past year raising a pig or cow have no place to show or sell their work. Harness racers like Lewis have one less venue to recoup their investments by winning prize money.
Some fair operators fear for their fair's long-term survival, as many organizations are shut out of federal pandemic relief and receive little to no state money.
The Neshoba County Fair draws about 75,000 people to rural central Mississippi over eight days. Many fairgoers stay in hundreds of campers and two-story cabins that can sleep up to 60 guests.
"There was simply no way we could require masks and keep everybody at a 6-foot distance," said fair manager Doug Johnson.
Today's county fairs have a front and back of the house, said Michael T. Marsden, a retired professor of English, American studies and media studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Rides, entertainment and foods (funnel cake, anyone?) excite fairgoers’ senses at the front. Head to the back for serious judging of livestock, produce and baked goods.
"The front of the house is more popular culture," Marsden said. "The back of the house is more folklore passed on orally."
Predating the founding of the United States, fairs began as markets designed to sell products. In the early 19th century, agricultural fairs became events for farm families to gather and share methods for improving crops and livestock, said Drake Hokanson, professor emeritus at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota.
Some fairs have racist and divisive histories. At Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair, early 20th century Mississippi politicians gave speeches espousing white supremacy. The 1964 murder of three civil rights workers whose bodies were found near the fairgrounds hardly disrupted the festivities.
President Ronald Reagan famously delivered a states' rights speech there during his 1980 presidential campaign. Today's fair still draws a nearly all-white crowd in the nation's Blackest state.
Across the country, with educational and child labor policy changes, and other social shifts, fairs gradually became venues for agriculture education as more farmers in the 20th century went to college.
Today's fairs are based on the same principles but vary by region. Look out for the best canned grayling fish competition in Alaska or best wheat in Kansas. Cattle country emphasizes cows, while New England boasts oxen pulls, Hokanson said.
Regardless, fairs help educate urban outsiders about rural life. They’re celebrations of community where church dinners and stock car races provide opportunities to bump into friends and neighbors. Although the number of farmers has declined and fewer young people are choosing agriculture as a career, experts say fairs have become increasingly important.
"The fair now is a great big community gathering for people who enjoy rural or agricultural life, whether you're a farmer or rancher or stockbroker," Hokanson said.
As a nonprofit, the South Florida Fair was able to receive Paycheck Protection Program dollars that Congress made available earlier this year through federal pandemic relief in the CARES Act. The fair used its forgivable small-business loan to retain 55 employees, said fair CEO Vicki Chouris.
But other fairs, such as the Clay County Fair and Events Center in Spencer, Iowa, were ineligible because they are a different type of nonprofit or a quasi-governmental organization.
"That meant we had to use operational funds just to keep our employees employed and we had to do that in the spring because we thought we were going to have a fair," said Clay County Fair and Events Center CEO Jeremy Parsons, whose organization is a 501(c)(5) nonprofit.
Just one-third of members with the International Association of Fairs and Expositions are nonprofits eligible for the federal aid, said Marla Calico, the organization's president and CEO.
A bill in the U.S. House, introduced by U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, a California Democrat, seeks $5 billion to create a new emergency grant program to help offset state and local fair losses. States would be able to apply for aid directly through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then distribute it to fairs.
While the annual fair is often the primary source of revenue for an organization, fairs that operate non-fair events rent their facilities throughout the year. And they lost that revenue source as states limited the size of gatherings, Calico said.
The overall economic activity from U.S. fairs is about $4.7 billion, including money that is generated on the fairgrounds for non-fair events (think home and RV shows). The economic devastation from fair cancellations is expected to be that much and more, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which is based in Springfield, Missouri.
As a result, some fairs are barely holding on.
"We know that as of October 2020, which is only a few months away, we will be in the red and we will have no income coming in," Angelica Anguiano, former finance chair of the Stanislaus County Fair Board in California’s Central Valley, said in a virtual news conference last month. "We only survive on our fair revenue, which was zero this year obviously, and all of our rentals, which we cannot offer."
Fairs are economic drivers that reinvest money in the community, Harder said in the news conference.
"We don't have a major airline that flies directly to Modesto," Harder said. “But every community across the country has a county fair that they depend on.”
About 17 states provide some type of aid to their county fairs, which may include prize money paid out to competitors in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) competitions or contributions to general operations, infrastructure or capital improvements, said Calico, of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
In Ohio, fairs are operated by local boards whose members apply for junior fair reimbursement money, state fair money and capital improvement facilities grants.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine responded to the pandemic by naming a task force to guide county fair boards. His goal was to support fairs that focused on young people in 4-H and FFA. DeWine also committed $50,000 to junior fairs and $15,000 to general fairs in CARES Act money.
But after outbreaks were connected to fairs, where some attendees haven’t followed social distancing or mask-wearing rules, DeWine last month canceled grandstands, games, carnivals — everything but junior fairs that started July 31.
And junior fairs "do not pay the bills," said Rodney Arter, board president of Ohio Fairs Managers and a member of the DeWine task force.
For Arter, DeWine’s decision was a disappointing outcome after a long, stressful few months. "The task force came up with recommendations that were approved by the governor at that time," Arter said. "We thought we could move forward. Now that's changed."
California is unique in that 53 of its 77 fairgrounds are state-affiliated fairs called District Agriculture Associations with civil service employees. The fairs, which are run by boards of directors appointed by the governor, have been running independently and without state money since 2011. Operating costs and salaries are covered by money earned by the fair.
The pandemic has prompted fairs to cancel money-making activities. The California fairs were projected to lose roughly $98 million in revenue between March and June, according to the state’s 2020-21 budget summary. And losses were expected to continue.
"As an industry, we were already operating on a shoestring, bare-bones budget, and now these fair businesses are being asked to stay alive with no ability to generate any revenue," said Sarah Cummings, CEO of the Western Fairs Association, which represents fairs in the western United States and Canada.
Many fairs have little to no reserves and will have to lay people off to avoid becoming insolvent, according to the California budget summary. This year California allocated $40.3 million so that the state-affiliated fairs, which are projected to lack reserves, can afford the costs they may incur during layoffs, such as staff salaries, payout of leave balances and unemployment insurance, the summary said.
Del Mar Fairgrounds, for example, hosts the largest county fair in the United States. Layoff notices were given to 58% of staff June 18, said Jennifer Hellman, marketing director.
Cummings said that "rather than providing support to stimulate and encourage the survival of these fairs, the funding is specifically to help shutter them and lay off their employees. Indirectly, the message from the state is that the funding is only to be used to close doors."
The California budget summary says Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration will work with fairs, local governments and partners toward alternative options, given limited General Fund resources.
The South Florida Fair eked by in January before the pandemic prompted widespread shutdowns. As the state approaches peak hurricane season, Palm Beach County may activate the fairgrounds' exposition center to relocate people who rely on power to maintain oxygen or other medical equipment, said Chouris, the fair’s CEO.
The fairgrounds were activated during Tropical Storm Isaias for a limited number of people. Florida Power and Light also used the property as a staging area to restore service to affected customers.
At the same time, the state has asked to use the fairgrounds' parking lot as a mobile hospital if local hospitals reach capacity.
"That's the concern," Chouris said. "What's going to happen if the hurricane comes through and there's COVID patients that need to be hospitalized?"
In California and other states, some fairs have held drive-through food events and virtual fairs.
The Delaware County Fair in eastern Iowa raised more than $30,000 at an auction in support of a youth livestock show. The money will help retain staff and complete repairs, said fair manager Jeannie Domeyer.
The Delaware State Fair was modified for fewer food vendors and strict social distancing. Contrast that with New York, where Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed state and county fairs for the rest of the year.
Winona State’s Hokanson got a taste of fairs across the country while co-writing "Purebred and Homegrown: America's County Fairs" with his wife, Carol Kratz.
"We kept running into lots of marriages that were the result of people meeting at the fair 40 years ago," Hokanson said. "How many couples are not going to meet because the fair is canceled this year?"