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SC State Fair to become drive-thru event for 2020 for coronavirus safety

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2016 SC State Fair ride (copy)

Riders enjoy the S.C. State Fair in 2016. The event will have no rides for 2020 and be a drive-thru event. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina State Fair will be scaled down to a two-day drive-thru where visitors will be able to see exhibits and buy some of their favorite foods, but there will be no rides.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the changes in the Columbia event that draws hundreds of thousands each October.

“The Drive-Through State Fair is going to give folks a snippet of the fair they’ve known their entire lives,” S.C. State Fair General Manager Nancy Smith said in a statement Wednesday.

For two days, Oct. 20-21, visitors will be able to see classic fair sights, such as farm animals, quilts and craft items in a series of a drive-thru exhibits. They they can proceed to a food area where they can buy fair favorites such as corn dogs and candy apples from their cars.

Admission to the drive-thru event will be free.

A drive-thru event was devised to continue the 150-year tradition of state fairs without undue risk for visitors of exposure to COVID-19, Smith said. Rides would pose challenges to ensure proper social distancing as South Carolina has become a national coronavirus hotspot. Fair management also decided that it would not able to hold its competitions, such as the baking and art categories, this year.

"Safety is always our number one concern, and it is clear to us that the State Fair must adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic," Smith said.

The special event replaces for 2020 one of the biggest annual draws in the Midlands. Last year, the fair brought more than 400,000 visitors to the State Fairgrounds in Columbia over 12 days. 

The reduction of the fair to a two-day event is likely to significantly reduce the economic boost it brings to the Midlands.

A study in 2019 by Tom Regan and Haylee Mercado of the University of South Carolina Department of Sport and Entertainment Management found that the fair had an annual economic impact of more than $45 million, including more than $16 million in wages.

A large portion of that spending usually goes to small businesses in Richland and Lexington counties, Regan said Wednesday, but most of that will not happen this year. 

Businesses that relied on visitors to the fair, such as hotels and bars, already are hurting, he said.

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The loss of the fair, along with events at Colonial Life Arena and the likely loss of fan attendance at University of South Carolina football games, means a significant loss of dollars for businesses in downtown Columbia, Regan said. Events in Columbia also are usually a reliable source of part-time work for people in the community.

"That is going to hurt," Regan said.

That damage also will affect state and local governments as revenue sources such as accommodations and sales taxes are expected to be reduced sharply, Regan said.

The fair itself stands to lose several million dollars in revenues, Smith said.

The State Fair’s transformation is unsurprising given the moves made by other large fairs in South Carolina and elsewhere. The Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson in late June canceled its 2020 edition, originally slated for Oct. 14-25.

The Upper South Carolina State Fair in Greenville, which had been slated for Sept. 3-13, also has been canceled.

On the same morning that the S.C. State Fair announced its transition into a drive-thru affair, the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh revealed that its 2020 event, scheduled for Oct. 15-25, is canceled.

Around the South, the wave of postponements, cancellations and changes is crashing across the fair industry. Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have all canceled their annual fall state fairs.

There are some still on the books, such as the Georgia State Fair, which has held onto its early October dates. 

Other state fairs in state such as Minnesota and Wisconsin are switching to a drive-thru event, as well, while Ohio is slated to hold its fair as an online event with recipes and video entertainment.

Jordan Lawrence contributed to this report.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikefittsat140

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