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Could California’s county fairs move to later in the year? ‘It’d be a tough call to do’

El Dorado County Fair has made the jump to later in the year in hopes that a real fair would be allowed at that time. Others aren't too eager to make the jump yet.

STANISLAUS COUNTY, Calif. — After all the slings and arrows of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of throwing the biggest and safest party of 2021 is a tantalizing idea for some organizers. With vaccinations ongoing and a possible end to the pandemic in sight, some say having that safe party later in the year could still be on the table.

“It would be absolutely amazing,” said Matt Cranford, CEO of the Stanislaus County Fair. “The lowest point of my entire career was having to cancel the Stanislaus County Fair last year. That was my lowest point bar none professionally, so to come back a year later and just pull off something, do something phenomenally great, for the community… would be huge.”

That being said, it’s not that easy. There’s a lot of parts to a county fair. Usually, the Stanislaus County Fair has half their entertainment lined up.

“This year, it’s been different - just trying to get commitments has been a little tougher. On the entertainment, a lot of the entertainers want guaranteed contracts,” Cranford said. “How are you going to step out and do a guaranteed contract for $30,000, $40,000 (or) $80,000 for an artist not knowing if you can do a fair or not?”

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So far, there’s been a lot of verbal commitments, but Cranford said some vendors have suggested that they’d take a booking in Arizona or Florida if they can land something solid.

The fair has had those talks about the pros and cons of moving the fair to a later date, but, even with vaccines being doled out, there’s not much of a guarantee on what will happen in the next few months.

“We had some brief conversations about it, and a lot of it just got really tough,” Cranford said. “I don’t know how you really pull it off with all the stakeholders, everyone in the community… it’d be a tough call to do.”

For a few counties to the north of Stanislaus, that call has already been made. The El Dorado County Fair, normally in June, has announced a move to September with hopes that large events will again be allowed.

For Jody Gray, CEO of the fair, the vaccination timeline has the fair believing that people will be clear to “roam around the world again” in September. The move didn’t come without compromise but not as many as some might expect.

Gray said they’ve had only two vendors hesitant to commit and 75% of their performers slated to return. In regard to guaranteed contracts for entertainers, it’s a nonstarter.

“If anyone wanted a guaranteed contract, we wouldn’t do that. We’d just move on to a different entertainer,” she said. “Because… we all know, there’s no guarantee at this point, and it’s not because we’re going to drop the ball. It’s because someone’s going to tell us we can’t do it.”

The compromise came in knowing what they could and couldn’t spend money on. Gray said there’s no advertising contracts or other contracts that they’d have to pay to get out of. In its place, they're substituting some tried and true hard work.

“It’s just extra work and we’re ok with it because if we don’t do it, then we’re out the fair again and it’s our major revenue source,” Gray said.

90% of the El Dorado County Fair’s revenue was out the door due to the cancelation of their 2020 fair. She said some days since then have been quiet, sometimes to the point of boring. But the hype for a real September fair is bringing back a familiar feeling.

“It’s almost like back to normal,” Gray said.

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For Stanislaus County, “normal” would be great, but it’s not what they’re dealing with right now. Cranford said there’s a lot of unknowns that still make this year a challenge.

The Stanislaus County Fair is already set for a 10-day run in July with a livestock sale and show. Other events could end up being a blend of virtual and traditional fair elements. When it comes to having any crowds or gatherings, that will depend on the county’s tier status in the coming months and various approvals from the state and county. Currently, the county is firmly in the Purple and most restrictive tier.

“I don’t know if we’ll get there in time,” Cranford said. “We can’t just get into yellow or better in the middle of June and say ‘hey, we’re two weeks out. Let’s do a fair now.’ We got to be hitting yellow by April.”

It’s not a unique situation. The El Dorado County Fair may have announced their dates for later in the year, but it’s not a done deal just yet, according to Gray. She said the current date was based on the vaccination plan, and, if the worst-case scenario comes about, then that traditional fair doesn’t happen.

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