GREENTOWN – Max and Margaret Widup haven’t been to church since March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Sharpsville couple even turned down a free trip to Florida with friends because of the pandemic.
But on Monday, they ventured out to the largest event they’ve been to in more than three months: the Howard County 4-H Fair.
“I don’t have any problems about coming to the fair,” Max said. “It’s spread out enough that we’re good.”
That was the attitude of nearly everyone who showed up for the first day of the fair, which this year celebrates its 75th year and marks the largest public event to happen in the county since the virus outbreak.
Signs placed throughout the fairgrounds encourage visitors to wear masks and social distance. A sign near the Midway touts the extra precautions vendors are taking to keep people safe, including taking temperatures of all the staff and routinely disinfecting the rides and other attractions.
At around 5 p.m., the crowds were sparse. Most of the food vendors and ride operators stood idly waiting for people to show up. But more people arrived as the evening went on.
Jay Freeman, concessionaire manager for the fair, said by the end of the night, ride operators on the Midway reported being busier than they were last year on the first day of the fair.
“I was really pleased,” Freeman said. “We seem to have a good crowd, and everyone tried to keep with social distancing.”
What many people didn’t do, though, was wear a mask. Hardly anyone walking the fairgrounds wore a face covering, although noticeably more people wore one inside the buildings.
However, all the vendors, volunteers and 4-H staff wore masks.
“We’re wearing them, and the 4-H people are wearing them, to be a good example, but I was surprised by the number of people who didn’t have them on,” Freeman said. “We’re asking people to wear them, but it’s not required.”
Inside the livestock pavilion at 5:30 p.m., a small crowd gathered at the south end of the building for the rabbit show, with everyone wearing a mask. The rest of the facility was empty of animals and people.
Emma Berry-Youmans, a junior at Eastern High School who was showing a rabbit, said it was strange for the building to be so quiet. During a normal fair, the pavilion is packed with animals and filled with the sounds of sheep, goats, pigs and cows.
This year, the fair board decided to keep the barn closed except during animal shows. Even then, 4-H’ers and onlookers are asked to social distance, and 4-H staff are spending 25 minutes between each show to disinfect the building from one end to the other.
“It’s weird,” Berry-Youmans said. “It doesn’t feel like the fair. But I feel lucky that we could come at all.”
Josh Winrotte, Howard County Purdue Extension 4-H Youth Development educator, said even though there are major changes to how the fair operates this year, most 4-H’ers are glad they have a chance to come in person to show their animals.
That was the case on Monday morning during the cattle show. Winrotte said besides social distancing and mask-wearing protocols, just about every other part of the event was the same as previous years.
“All things considered, it looked like a pretty normal day,” he said. “For the people that came and watched the cattle show, they watched a normal show with a judge and kids and entrants. It felt normal, and it was really nice to have something normal.”
Winrotte said the number of kids participating in the 4-H fair this year is down slightly due to concerns over the virus, but what they lost in numbers they made up for in quality.
“With the schools closed and all the kids having more time to work with their animals and work on their static projects, we saw higher quality than we usually see,” he said.
But it wasn’t just 4-H’ers who were happy for the opportunity to be at an in-person fair.
Ken Ledbetter, owner of Ledbetter’s Grand Fudge Shop in Converse, had a booth set up inside the commercial building to sell bags of his handcrafted fudge. He said his shop has been closed since March, and the fair gave him his first real chance to get out and make some money.
And it might be his only chance. Ledbetter said a good chunk of his business comes from going to fairs and festivals, but they’ve all been canceled except the Howard County fair.
“We were shocked they ended up having it, but we’re glad they did,” he said. “It’s nice to get back to work. This might be the only fair we do this year.”
Fewer vendors than usual were inside the commercial building this year, in order to allow more space inside the facility to promote social distancing. Crowds followed a one-way path through the building to peruse the wares and services on display from local shops and companies. Two hand-sanitizer dispensers were placed at the entrance.
Outside the building, Dolly Mitchell sat eating a hamburger from the Greentown Lions Club booth. The Marion resident said she comes every year to get her fair-food fix, and she wasn’t going to miss it this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“This is the best fair in the area, and I’m not freaked out by COVID,” she said. “I can’t say I’m not worried about it, but you can’t live your life in fear.”
Concessionaire manager Freeman said it felt good to know they were providing a fair for people like Mitchell, who are ready to get out and get back to some kind of normalcy.
“I’m very excited and very pleased that we were able to do this for 4-H and the community,” he said.
And Purdue Extension educator Winrotte said even though crowds were relatively small on Monday, he expects a lot bigger crowds to show up throughout the week as people realize the fair is taking real precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We’ve had so many graduations move and proms move and other events canceled,” he said. “This feels like a Howard County fair. With this being the 75th anniversary, it’s a good chance to celebrate that we’re safe enough to begin to have a normal life again. It’s great to be on the forefront of that.”