Sonoma County Fair canceled for first time since World War II because of coronavirus pandemic

For the first time since World War II, there will be no Sonoma County Fair this summer.

The Board of Directors voted unanimously to cancel the Aug. 5-16 fair during its Tuesday evening meeting, which was held virtually through Zoom. Fair CEO Becky Bartling, in her recommendation to the board to cancel the annual event, cited Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s announcement earlier in the day that mass gatherings will be prohibited in the region through Labor Day in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s a very, very sad situation, and I know myself and the staff are extremely disappointed,” Bartling said during the meeting. “However, given what’s happening with COVID-19 and the health crisis surrounding that, I completely understand the limitation on mass gatherings - I understand our need to avoid those types of activities.”

In anticipation of canceling the fair and because of the other events at the fairgrounds that were canceled in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Bartling offered to temporarily reduce her salary by about $3,500 a month, a reduction of about 30%. She said she “wanted to do (her) part to help out with some savings.”

A motion to reduce Bartling’s salary from May 1 through Aug. 30 was approved unanimously at the meeting. Ordinarily, she earns about $144,000 a year, she said.

“It was very generous, and I’m very appreciative of it,” said Fair Board President Max Mickelsen of Bartling’s offer during the meeting.

The theme of the fair was supposed to be “Tropical Fairadise” - a departure from the more traditional 2019 theme, “Back to Our Roots in Cowboy Boots.” The fair, which is held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds each year, was supposed to feature tropical vibes, including a Tiki bar.

The fair wasn’t postponed to the fall because the school year will resume by then, which “isn’t an ideal situation” since children will be back in classes, Bartling said. She added that it’s still uncertain when mass gatherings will be permitted, which made a potential fall fair too tenuous.

The 2021 fair is still scheduled to take place.

Attendance at the fair has steadily declined over the past few years, but more than 125,000 people bought tickets during last year’s 11-day run.

The board members agreed to discuss at a later date whether they can still hold certain components of the fair in some capacity. The design for the Hall of Flowers event, for instance, will be incorporated in the 2021 fair.

Staff members are monitoring whether it would be possible for the horse races to occur, and are researching the feasibility of holding the races with no spectators in the stands to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Bartling said the board will likely make a decision on that within the next month.

Earlier this month, the board sent out a letter to livestock exhibitors, FFA advisers and 4-H leaders advising them that even if the fair was canceled, the board would find an alternate way to process animals as part of the Junior Market Livestock event. Staff members are still working on the details of this plan, but Bartling said they are committed to find a way to get kids’ animals to a processor that can then sell them at market value to get them into the food chain.

Bartling added that the kids who participate in the event spend many months preparing for it, learning valuable skills such as responsibility and time management.

“This process that kids go through is not just about getting the animal to market and getting as much money as they can get - it’s about the educational process as well,” she said on the importance of the event.

The fair generates a significant amount of revenue for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, and staffers are analyzing projections on the economic impact of the cancellation.

“(It) is going to be a major challenge,” Mickelsen said during the meeting, regarding the revenue loss from the cancellation. “We have to be very, very careful about planning activities that we’re not able to go ahead and generate any income from.”

While the vote to cancel the fair was unanimous, many board members expressed their disappointment. Mickelsen said that he showed his first cow at the fair 66 years ago, and doesn’t think he’s missed the fair since.

“(I have) a very heavy heart that in my term we don’t have a fair this year, but one way or another, we’ll make that up,” he said.

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