By WCCO-TV Staff

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — After a year without the Great Minnesota Get-Together, cheers erupted Thursday morning as the gates opened to the Minnesota State Fair.

Ginger Johnson, a fair superfan, was the first in line at the main entrance, having staked out her spot at 11 p.m. the night before — something she’s done for years. But last year, when the fair was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson found herself with nothing to celebrate.

For two weeks she stayed home and sometimes cried. “Thought about being here,” she said. When she learned that this year’s fair was a go, she bought her tickets in November, eager to see friends and taste some of her favorite foods, like Giggle’s walleye cakes.

Still, on Thursday morning, she noticed that the opening day lines were not as long as usual, with a number of familiar faces missing. “It’s a little weird,” she said. “But I’m still getting here.”

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The couple that officially opened the fair gates said they came out extra early this year to feel the excitement. “We’re huge fair fanatics and just very excited to be back at the fair,” one of them said. “We know all the precautions, everything else, but we want to have a good time.”

The “Great Minnesota Get Back Together” is happening against the backdrop of the pandemic and the current surge due to the Delta variant. While the fair has not instituted a mask or vaccine mandate, officials are strongly encouraging fair-goers to wear masks indoors or when in large crowds regardless of vaccination status, as per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fair officials are also urging Minnesotans to attend the fair at less busy times, avoid weekends and practice social distancing. Still, no limits are being placed on attendance.

Those who’ve yet to receive the vaccine will be able to get a shot at the fair’s North End Event Center. The first 3,600 fair-goers to get their first dose will be eligible for a $100 Visa gift card as part of the state’s vaccine incentive program.

“You can come out here, get yourself vaccinated if you’re not already so,” the governor said at the fair Thursday. “Bring a mask along and come out and enjoy the Great Minnesota Get Together.”

Concerns over COVID-19 are affecting more than just early crowd size. A number of vendors have opted not to attend this year’s fair, and some buildings, such as the DNR building, will be closed so as to protect workers. One Grandstand act pulled out of their performance, and in response the fair is offering concert refunds for all Grandstand shows up until 24 hours before showtime.

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Another change at the fair this year are the metal detectors at entrances. All visitors are required to walk through a set of metal detectors. If the alarm doesn’t sound, fair-goers are free to enter. However, if something triggers the machines, visitors are taken aside for a secondary screening. On Thursday morning, perhaps due to the less-than-normal crowd sizes, the new process didn’t make for long waits.

Getting to the fair might also be a bit different this year. While there are still more than 20 free park-and-ride locations not far from the fairgrounds, there are only three express Metro Transit shuttles operating around the metro — in Minnetonka, Bloomington and Cottage Grove. In a typical year, there are usually 10 express shuttles running to and from the fair every 30 minutes.

Thursday is STEM Day at the fair, with reduced prices for rides and games at the Mighty Midway and the Kidway. Because it’s opening day, admission cost is also discounted a few dollars. For more Minnesota State Fair stories, click here.