Tens of thousands of people typically fill the Colorado State Fairgrounds each day during the annual late-summer event. This year, the busiest it will get at any time is 400 to 500 on foot — not including the livestock.
The Colorado State Fair kicked off officially Friday at the 102-acre complex in Pueblo. But in key ways, the pandemic version will hardly resemble the normal 11-day festival, with virtually no spectators, no concerts, no rodeo, no carnival — and no chance for the public to hobnob with barns full of cows, goats, sheep and pigs.
When the coronavirus was first found in the state nearly six months ago, the Colorado State Fair’s leader says, it became clear the event would need to be pared down significantly. But canceling entirely — as some county fairs did — was something General Manager Scott Stoller and the fair’s board wanted to avoid, though they had to quash early hopes of having some kind of a midway.
“It was like a slow train wreck happening,” Stoller said of the pandemic. They looked primarily to salvage the youth-oriented livestock, 4-H and FFA events, including the Junior Livestock Show and Sale. “We saw that there was a path forward for those kids to see their projects to fruition.”
The only big public draw to the fairgrounds this year is a drive-thru fair food setup Friday through Monday that will allow the purchase of corn dogs, turkey legs and funnel cakes, among other favorites. Monday night’s drive-thru will include in-vehicle viewing of champion animals raised by the fair’s young competitors.
For Denver metro residents, there’s little reason to make the nearly two-hour drive south this year. Of course, that’s the point.
The chance to view competitions and events that are still happening is moving online via livestreaming and free video-on-demand on the fair’s website. In fact, some events took place ahead of the official opening. The fair will end on Labor Day, and throughout fair officials will make virtual announcements of next year’s music acts — assuming things will return to normal by then.
Last year, the state fair’s attendance was 466,380. This year, state public health rules still in place limit crowds in large indoor spaces to 100, with 175 allowed in outdoor spaces or cavernous barns that aren’t entirely enclosed.
Stoller said the exhibitors, their guardians, judges and staff need to be accommodated, so the fair decided against even limited numbers of spectators. Barns will have no more than 50 exhibitors, about a quarter the usual number, with staggered arrivals and showings.
Across the fairgrounds, indoors and outside, masks are required for most people.
But the precautions won’t keep the tradition from having some modicum of its usual excesses.
This week, the fair announced that it’s bringing back the World Slopper-Eating Championship after a successful inaugural run last year, with help from a sponsor, Major League Eating — an organization that indeed exists.
If you’re not well-versed in the southern Colorado delicacy, a slopper is an open-faced half-pound cheeseburger smothered in Pueblo green chile (mild version). Last year’s winner, Darron Breeden, consumed 28.25 of them in eight minutes. He’ll be back on Sept. 5, competing against Joey Chestnut, the world’s top-ranked competitive eater, and other professionals — and Stoller says they’ll be socially distanced on stage.
That competition, too, will be closed to the public but livestreamed on the fair’s website.
The state fair, which draws some public funding and long has struggled financially, is bracing for a financial hit after years of turnaround efforts. Recent state audits show it has developed a positive cashflow and increased its reserves, but Stoller says the fairgrounds lost income this year from other events canceled because of the pandemic. It has been slashing costs in recent months, but he expects to dip into reserves by $600,000 or more by the end of the fiscal year in June, mostly because of the grounds’ high year-round operating costs.
The state’s 4-H program, coordinated by the Colorado State University Extension office, says participation has been down this year, but judges this month still evaluated nearly 3,000 exhibits and contest entries for the state fair.
Some were submitted by video, but many were brought to the fairgrounds by county representatives, including wooden tables and benches and leatherwork pieces. The 4-H dog show took place last weekend, much smaller than normal and with competition staggered to reduce crowding in the ring.
“It shows to me that even through the pandemic, 4-H kids are pretty resilient and are willing to do what needs to get done,” said Connie Cecil, a 4-H youth development specialist. “Everyone wore their masks and we were very careful about making sure we followed our procedures. I had about 44 counties bringing their exhibits down to the state fair.”
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