The South Carolina State Fair returns Oct. 13 after last year’s innovative but abbreviated drive-thru version, and it promises the usual assortment of delights.
That’s including new and old rides, food, and entertainment alike, including the enormous “Super Wheel” that has been in construction for weeks. For many South Carolinians, it will feel like yet another sign of normalcy returning after a long year and half of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the lingering virus is still spreading at a significant rate in communities throughout the state. While case rates due to the Delta variant appear to have crested, the state logged 1,785 cases on Oct. 8. This could lead some potential fair goers to ponder the risks of attendance.
So how should you decide to weigh the pandemic with the state’s annual festival?
“The good news is that we're definitely trending downward, so things are much better off today than they were, you know, a few weeks ago and definitely a month ago, when they were at their highest levels ever throughout the entire pandemic,” said Dr. Anthony Alberg, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina's School of Public Health.
To further bolster that, he cited that most of the fair takes place outdoors, where rates of transmission are much lower, is also important. However, with cases in the state still exceeding 1,000 per day there’s reason for pause as well.
“We're still at a high number of cases," Alberg explained. "That would make me worry personally, about attending an event where there might be crowding."
The State Fair is taking several precautions to help with safety, said executive director Nancy Smith. That includes paying attention to how to allow social distancing and patron flow in the layout, she said.
The Fair’s website also notes many COVID-19 precautions, including increased hand sanitation stations, limited contact payment options, increased cleaning protocols and displaying hygiene signage throughout the Fairgrounds. They are also following the Columbia’s mask ordinance in indoor exhibition halls.
“We take everything into consideration, not just from the COVID standpoint but from an overall safety standpoint,” Smith said. “We did everything we could to bring a fair that we knew that we needed to bring for our patrons, a good, safe fair.”
Where the organization stops short, however, is in requiring proof of vaccination status or a negative test before entry, something some events and venues have required in recent months.
In September, the Columbia stop on rocker Jason Isbell’s tour required a vaccination, as do shows at the snug local music club New Brookland Tavern. While indoors, restaurants like Lula Drake Wine Parlour and Il Focolare in Columbia, are also requiring vaccinations to dine-in.
Smith said they didn’t consider enforcing a vaccine mandate, but said the organization believes vaccinations are the best way for people to protect themselves.
“The vast majority of the fair is outdoors, and we know outdoors is better. The other thing is, the fair is not a place where, other than maybe 30 or 40 minutes, where you sit in one place at one time,” she explained.
She echoed the COVID-19 warning that the state fair has made public, which asks guests to “take responsibility for their own health and safety — in addition to acting with care for the health and safety of those around them.”
That will leave some typical fairgoers, like those with young children not eligible to be vaccinated, with tough choices to make. According to local graphic designer Brian Harmon, his family, including his three-year-old daughter, will elect to skip this year’s fair because of COVID concerns.
“After discussing it carefully and consulting out physicians, we decided that the delta variant is still too active in our community to risk it with a toddler who isn't old enough for the vaccine,” he explained.
Harmon also cited the relatively low rate of vaccinated South Carolinians as cause for concern. Data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s shows that 53% of the population is fully vaccinated.
South Carolina State Fair
Oct. 13 - Oct. 24. Free for five or younger; $15 at participating Circle K's; $15 seniors; $20 general admission. South Carolina State Fair Grounds. 1200 Rosewood Drive. scstatefair.org.