By Jeff Wagner

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Many summer traditions include a trip to the fairgrounds — but COVID-19 is slowly cutting down the options.

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Across Minnesota, at least 20 counties have already decided to cancel their fairs.

It was a busy afternoon Wednesday at the Sherburne County Fairgrounds as local food shelves helped families in need. And it might be the most commotion the fairgrounds see all summer.

Fair board president Jenni Axelson said the pandemic, and the restrictions that come with it, left them no choice but to cancel their annual celebration. The Sherburne County Fair was scheduled for July 16-19.

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“This was one of the hardest decisions we’ve made,” Axelson said. “Could we even get the products to clean everything? Probably not. Could we afford PPE for everybody? Could we keep everybody safe? And the answer’s no.”

On a good day, Axelson said the fair draws 10,000 people, which would make social distancing difficult for visitors, vendors and 4-H families.

The latest restrictions from Gov. Tim Walz only allows gatherings of 10 people or less in Minnesota. It’s possible the rule will be relaxed in the weeks and months ahead, meaning larger groups could come together, but Axelson said they couldn’t wait any longer to make a decision.

“I’ve been on Zoom calls and webinars with the International Association of Fairs weekly, checking what the Minnesota Department of Health is recommending daily,” she said. “Really feel bad for the kids, but we’re working on some ideas for them.”

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There’s about 300 kids participating in 4-H in Sherburne County. Although they won’t be able to show their animals and other projects in person, they might be able to do so digitally, according to Danielle Ganje, extension educator with Sherburne County 4-H Youth Development.

“It certainly is a lot of work and new territory to go into offering a fair experience virtually, however 4-H is committed to serving youth in our community all the time, year-round,” Ganje said.

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Dance, music and theater performances can easily be recorded and submitted from home. But judging an animal through a computer screen might be tricky since it’s often more hands-on.

“There’s definitely a lot of factors that are involved when we do decide which route to go. And we’re getting guidance from other state 4-H programs staff on what some of those best practices might be,” Ganje said.

Axelson says she will miss the crowds this year, but said cancelling also gives them a chance to finish several construction projects on site. They’re renovating barns and putting in new roads to name a few.

“We’re gonna try and rewrite some grants to see if we can pay for judges that way, so at least [4-H youth] can show what they’ve been working on for a year,” Axelson said. “We’re coming back stronger, 2021.”

The following Minnesota counties have canceled their fairs for 2020: Aitkin, Benton, Cass, Clearwater, Freeborn, Grant, Kandiyohi, Kittson, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Pine, Polk, Ramsey, Roseau, Wadena, West Otter Tail, Wilkin and Yellow Medicine.

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Jeff Wagner