Tradition, But No Fanfare, At 2020 Kentucky State Fair
April Hitch, of Brooksville, Kentucky said she’s been showing livestock at the Kentucky State Fair since she was a young kid, a tradition that she’s passed on to her now-16-year-old twin daughters.
“They were born in June,” she said. “And they were down here in front of the table in their little baby carriers, and have been coming every year since.”
Hitch said she’s grateful they were able to carry on that tradition this year in spite of a global pandemic.
“For kids like mine, this is something they are working towards all year long,” she said. “It's a huge thing that they went ahead and had this.”
There’s no denying how dramatically different the fair is in 2020. And Hitch said it’s kind of eerie to see areas typically packed with people and animals to be so quiet and spread out.
On Thursday, the fair opened with no ceremonial kick-off breakfast, no crowds, no live entertainment, no midway and a mask requirement for everyone except the non-human animals (despite the impression the fair’s website might give).
All heartbreaking but necessary changes to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, president and CEO of Kentucky Venues David S. Beck said. Kentucky Venues manages the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, which is home to the Kentucky State Fair.
Normally the fair attracts close to 600,000 people over the 11-day period, Beck said. Organizers acknowledged those kinds of crowds wouldn’t be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and developed a plan that allowed for a reduced general public admittance. But they revisited that after Kentucky began experiencing a spike in cases mid-summer.
“The [Beshear] administration asked us to take a second look,” Beck said. “So we went back and had a plan B.”
“Plan B” was released on Aug. 6. It closed the fair to the general public and called off all of the fair’s popular public attractions, like concerts, the Midway, exhibits, entertainment tents and food vendors.
“So we have the livestock, we’ll name the largest pumpkin, we’ll name the largest watermelon and then we’ll have the horse show,” Beck said. “Other than that, everything else has been removed from the list.”
The new plan also decreased the number of entries allowed in each livestock judging, and limited those shows to only junior and youth entrants, also known as 4-H and FFA. Other changes to this year's “participant-only” state fair include wider aisles, an up to 82% reduced capacity for indoor areas, hand sanitizer nearly everywhere you turn and reduced hours.
Beck said all these changes will amount to a significant economic hit for the fair and for the vendors who would have been serving at the fair — how much, he doesn’t know yet. But it felt important to salvage some semblance of the event for the young participants, he said.
“They've been working for months raising their animals, learning the economics of the industry, developing leadership skills,” Beck said. “This is a chance for them to come and show what they worked on and be recognized for their efforts. So it's all these young people, and we're excited to have this opportunity for them.”
Gov. Andy Beshear gave a nod toward the state fair during his briefing on Thursday afternoon.
"Our state fair is such an important tradition that has been going on so long here in Kentucky," he said, adding that many other states have canceled theirs.
Beshear said the fair board "did the right thing" in its drastic scaling back.
"Although the fair looks different, it still highlights our agricultural traditions," he said. "With over 76,000 farms, 240,000 horses in the Commonwealth, the state fair does truly show such an important part of what makes us Kentuckians."
Lily Roadcap, who was named the 2020 Ayrshire Showmanship Champion on day one, said she’s been coming to the Kentucky State Fair since she was a baby, and it was strange to not have lots of people watching the shows this year.
“I'm used to all the people walking around and… getting to teach people about dairy cattle, because you'll be surprised at all the weird questions I get asked by locals,” the 15-year-old said (shortly after cautioning that her cow might be tempted to eat my microphone).
Weird questions like, do brown cows make chocolate milk? Or is this a horse or a donkey? She found herself missing that line of inquiry this year. She’s also disappointed more people couldn’t see her win her judging.
“My grandparents couldn’t come to watch it because they weren't allowed to,” she said — the State Fair’s COVID-19 safety plan limits the young entrants to two to four additional tickets for family members or chaperones to help with the animals.
Perhaps her grandparents caught her win on the fair’s livestream. Either way, she said it still felt “awesome” to win.
The Kentucky State Fair runs through Aug. 30 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.