Four young 4-H members showcase their pigs to a judge at the Lincoln County Fair.
Young 4-H members showcase their pigs to the judge, who is wearing a blue shirt, at the 2019 Lincoln County Fair. Courtesy photo.

 Summer is in full swing and county fairs are right around the corner, but due to COVID-19 restrictions some are going forward with 4-H and livestock shows, but not carnivals and public events. 

Many of Nebraska’s 93 county fairs will not be open to the general public this summer.

Fair managers from York and Sarpy counties say the public is going to miss the fairs, but it is not practical or safe to return to normal this summer. 

People are upset that they just can’t come out, and you know they look forward to the food vendors that are here and the events. They can’t come out to see that stuff this year,” said Shari Cecil, the Lincoln County fair manager.  

Nebraska News Service talked to more than half a dozen fair managers about their county fair plans, and here’s what they said: 

YorkCountyColoringWall 300x200 - COVID-19 means animals and 4-H at county fairs, but no plans for rides and carnivals
Children show off their coloring skills on a coloring wall at the 2019 York County Fair. Courtesy photo

York County: Drive-in movie, but no carnival 

The York County Fair draws about 15,000 people annually. People come for the live events, carnival rides, animal exhibits and other attractions. The fair will be open to the public with its normal vendors, but without its normal events. Instead, York County Fair President Brad Gloystein and the other board members added new “COVID-19 friendly” events including a drive-in movie and cruise night after the annual car show.

 Gloystein has been the president of the York County Fair for 20 years and on the board of directors of 37 years. This year is unlike any other, but he feels that it is important to offer the York County community a fair this summer.

“Basically, people have been shut in for so long that if we can abide by the health directives and what our county health association will allow that we felt that we would open it up to the public,” Gloystein said.

The York County Fair is Aug. 6-9, but the days will be shorter. Future Farmers of America and 4-H livestock shows will spread out over six days.  

 Madison County: No concert this year

The Madison County Fair will postpone the fair until next year. A summer without a county fair is unheard of in Madison County, said Madison County Fair President Randy Ritterbush.

“Historically speaking, it hasn’t happened in our county. World War II didn’t even stop our county fair,” Ritterbush said.

 This year’s entertainers were going to be REO Speedwagon with Head East and Aaron Watson with the Dylan Bloom Band. All entertainers have been invited back to perform next summer.

 FFA and 4-H events will still take place. 

 “The 4-H program and FFA programs, my personal opinion, are very very important because they not only teach these kids to start a project and stay with it and see it through till the end but especially those that do livestock entries,” Ritterbush said.

The 4-H and FFA events are scheduled to start July 6 and go into the following week. The events will only be open to the competitors and their parents, and then the competitors will be given five tickets to hand out to their families.

 Postponing the Madison County Fair was a tough decision, but it was necessary due to financial reasons.  Ritterbush said that the fair would have caused $210,000-$230,000 of debt if there was a limit of 25% capacity. With the new directive health measurements allowing a 75% capacity, the fair could have had the possibility to breakeven. 

“But it’s probably not worth taking the risk financially,” Ritterbush said.

 Platte County: Private 4-H and FFA events

Platte County Fair organizers decided on June 1 to only hold 4-H and FFA events only at Ag Park in Columbus.  

FFA and 4-H participants will be given six passes for their family to attend in order to keep the attendance below the capacity limits, said Brian Palmer, general manager for the Platte County Agricultural Society.

 “These events are the heart and soul of a county fair.  Many of these young people have been putting work in on their exhibits before anyone heard of COVID-19. They deserve to continue traditions that have carried through generations of their families and for 80 years here in Platte County,” Palmer said.

 The 4-H and FFA events are July 8-12.

Colfax County Fair: No publicly open class exhibits or classes

The Colfax County Fair, which is located in Leigh, has suspended all activities except 4-H and FFA events. There will be no open class exhibits or classes this year, and the events will not be open to the public.

The 4-H and FFA events are scheduled July 15-19.

In a statement on the fair website, the Colfax County Agricultural Society said it regretted closing events to the public, but felt “it is in the best interest of the community.” 

The Colfax County Fair will celebrate its 100th year anniversary next year.

Lincoln County Fair:  Public events postponed 

The Lincoln County Fair in North Platte will hold 4-H and FFA events July 22-27, and the horse show is July 18-19. The shows are limited to family and volunteer helpers, who will be required to wear masks while in the ring with participants, Cecil said..

 Cecil thinks that not having a fair will take a toll on the community. She said spectators have voiced complaints about not getting to attend fair events and support the 4-H and FFA participants.

 “That’s been probably our biggest obstacle, whether or not they are involved with the fair, people still want to come out to watch the kids,” Cecil said.

 Lincoln County had events planned for this summer’s fair including a concert, barbeque competition, ranch rodeo and 5K race.  

Douglas County: Livestock exhibits

This year, the Douglas County Fair will only consist of livestock shows open to the exhibitors and their families.

Kori Jensen, director of the Douglas County Fair, said it was not reasonable to open the fair to the public.  

“It will be about the exhibitors and their families,” Jensen said.

 Exhibitors will not be able to showcase their animals and knowledge to the public , but Jensen said the exhibitors will still benefit.

 “I think any opportunity that we can give youth in agriculture is vital,” Jensen said.

Sarpy County: Undecided

The Sarpy County Fair, which brings in about 80,000 people a year, has yet to make a decision about the fair, scheduled for Aug. 1-5.

 Rich Jansen has been president of the Sarpy County Fair for 40 years, and this year is nothing like he’s ever seen. Public safety is his top concern. 

 “I’d hate to have a fair causing a bunch more people to get infected,” Jansen said.

 The Sarpy County Fair board plans to decide by the end of June. Jansen said he is leaning toward voting not to have a fair.

 “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this, and I just hope I can make the right decision. And if we can’t have a full-blown fair, then we shouldn’t have one,” Jansen said.

 For more information on county fairs, visit the Nebraska Association of Fair Manager website.

Blaney Dreifurst is a Journalism student with minors in Sociology and Business and Law. She is on a pre-law track with hopes of attending law school in Fall 2024.