Carnival Rides Shut by Covid Leave Fairs Facing $3 Billion Hit

The coronavirus pandemic is claiming another victim: agricultural fairs featuring carnival games, roller coasters and livestock contests. The industry, with more than prize pigs and cotton candy sales at stake, wants federal help as it confronts billions of dollars in losses.

Roughly 2,000 fairs are held annually in the U.S., and more than 80% of those will be canceled this year, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions estimates. Those pushing ahead, such as the Delaware State Fair, will temper the escapism of the midway with face masks, employee temperature checks, social distancing, and cleaning teams to disinfect rides and dining areas.

Lawmakers are now pushing for federal aid for agricultural fairs, which are often run by organizations ineligible for small business loans.

“Fairs play a vital role in U.S. agribusiness by supporting thousands of jobs and giving farmers a way to promote their products,” said Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) in a statement. “Our fairs have suffered very substantial, if not devastating, losses due to COVID-19.”

Long and Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) are spearheading a bill to provide $500 million in relief to fairs. The Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act, introduced Thursday, would put the Agricultural Marketing Service in charge of doling out grants to states or their agriculture departments based on fair attendance and revenue losses this year.

Panetta will fight to include the aid in the next Covid-19 relief package, Sarah Davey Wolman, the congressman’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Wearing a helmet and protective vest, a young boy rides a galloping ewe during the Wool Riders Only Mutton Bustin’ competition at the Iowa State Fair.

U.S. fairgrounds were set to generate $4.67 billion this year, according to Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which represents about 1,100 agricultural fairs globally. Now ground to a halt by the pandemic, the industry stands to lose more than $3 billion in revenue, she said.

‘Covid Testing or Fairs?’

Panetta and Long led 13 other members, including House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), in urging House leaders to help what they called a “uniquely American industry.” State and county fairs not only give agricultural producers the opportunity to showcase their goods and services, but also spark a passion for farming and ranching in students, the lawmakers said in a July 22 letter to congressional leaders.

Fairgrounds also serve as shelter and refuge sites during emergencies. “Fair operators are often responsible for the costs of maintaining fairgrounds as critical infrastructure so they are ready when disasters strike,” the legislators wrote.

Federal relief couldn’t come soon enough for an industry going through a “desperate downward spiral,” Calico said. The majority of fairs are run by private, not-for-profit organizations—many of which are ineligible for Paycheck Protection Program small business loans because of their tax-exempt status as agricultural, social-welfare, or trade associations, she added.

The few fairs operating as functions of government may suffer from strained funding in the near future, Calico said. “Whenever a county is facing their FY2021 budget, what’s going to take more importance?” she questioned. “Covid testing or fairs?”

The ability for fairs to push forward this year depends solely on the guidance of their respective health authorities, Calico said.

“Fairgrounds are often the heartbeat of their communities,” Sarah Cummings, president and CEO of the Western Fairs Association, said in a statement. “Now is the time to provide emergency funding and preserve the legacy of our nation’s Fairgrounds for future generations to come.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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