By MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Normally this time of year, Stacey Pittroff-Barona would be in the middle of fair season. Her dad would be back from Australia, having run their carnival ride, the Giant Slide, and food stand, Cheese on a Stick and Fresh Lemonade, at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. August would see 11 days of the Wisconsin State Fair followed by another 12 at the fair in her home state of Minnesota.
“I have grown up in the fair business my entire life,” Pittroff-Barona told ABC News. “That has been pretty much all we have done, is the fair business.”
The Giant Slide celebrated 50 years at the Minnesota State Fair last year. The food stand has been a staple there for 40 years.
This year, all three fairs were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Financially, it has been devastating,” said Pittroff-Barona.
She said that as a seasonal employer, she wasn’t able to apply for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, and it’s hard to get grants because the businesses travel.
“You fall into that hole where you can’t really apply to anything,” she said.
So far this year, at least 25 state fairs have been canceled or indefinitely postponed across the country, as officials either deemed it too risky to hold crowded fairs effectively, or aren’t able to due to state restrictions on mass gatherings. That doesn’t include the hundreds of county fairs — some of which, like in Erie, attract more people than some state fairs do — that have also been canceled. Among the more than two dozen state fairs that haven’t been canceled, several, including in New York, Texas and Utah, are tentatively still on.
In addition to its cultural and social significance, the state fair — a celebration of a region’s agricultural heritage — is a driver of economic activity. The Indiana State Fair, which has been canceled this year, typically hires more than 1,000 seasonal employees.
The economic impact of canceling both Illinois state fairs in Springfield and Du Quoin is expected to be at least $80 million, ABC News affiliate WICS-TV in Illinois reported. The loss to the Des Moines tourism industry for canceling the Iowa State Fair has been estimated at $110 million, according to the Des Moines Register. The Wisconsin State Fair is the largest event in the state, drawing more than one million visitors. The economic hit of canceling that fair is estimated at more than $200 million, VISIT Milwaukee President and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The fair industry came to a dead halt in March, Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, told ABC News. Since then, the largest event the organization’s nearly 1,100 members have in the books is the Delaware State Fair, kicking off July 23.
Calico said there’s a “ripple effect” of fairs on the local economy. One ripple stems from the carnival operators and food stands that often travel from festival to festival.
“They’re buying services in the community, they’re getting restocked on supplies, they’re getting their vehicles serviced — the ripple effect of this is immense,” Calico said.
There are also the tourists who fill up hotels — last year, the Ohio State Fair had nearly one million attendees across 12 days coming from every county in Ohio, as well as all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Mexico, according to the Ohio Expositions Commission.
Then there are the community organizations — your Lions Clubs and Kiwanis clubs — that often receive donations from fair proceeds, Calico said.
For now, Pittroff-Barona has figured out a way to run her food stand and give back. Since June 1, she’s been slinging corn dogs from the parking lot of her local VFW, and donating a part of the proceeds to the organization.
The stand is scheduled to run there daily through July 25, with nearly half of her full state fair staff on board.
“They’re pretty thankful to have summer jobs with everything that’s going on,” Pittroff-Barona said. “We’re not really running fair numbers, but we’re very steady.”
Other Minnesota State Fair vendors have been popping up in parking lots and on roadsides for the summer, with state fair diehards creating a “fair food finder.”
Wisconsin State Fair Park officials have also devised a way for would-be fairgoers to get their fair fix, with cream puff pop-ups throughout the state during the original fair dates, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 16. More fair-related festivities are in the works, a spokesperson told ABC News.
Fairgrounds that have had to cancel other events due to social distancing orders have also pivoted to drive-in movies and concerts, such as in New York and Washington.
Pittroff-Barona is hopeful that by next year’s fair season, she can go back to “business as usual.” For now, she is watching to see what happens with the Washington State Fair, scheduled to start Labor Day weekend. It’s typically their next stop after the Minnesota State Fair for the Giant Slide, which normally employs over 100 people.
“They haven’t called it,” Pittroff-Barona said. “I’m holding out a little bit of hope that that fair will actually be on.”
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