New York State Fair Director Troy Waffner and his team developed plans for a fair during the COVID-19 pandemic. They explored ways to hold the 18-day event with limited capacity. But, in the end, there were too many health and safety concerns to pull it off.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that the state fair is canceled for 2020. It's the first time since World War II that there won't be a fair.
In an interview with The Citizen, Waffner said the state has made great progress in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and lowering the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations. But even with the declining numbers, he acknowledged the risk of holding the fair during a pandemic.
"Is there a possible way we could've done it? Absolutely, because our theory is anything is doable. It's just how you do it," Waffner said. "But is it realistic? No, I don't think it was probably realistic."
The fair informed its midway operator, Wade Shows, of the cancellation. Before Cuomo's announcement, Waffner said a "relatively low percentage of vendors" pulled out. There were some musical acts that canceled their concerts.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began in New York was around the time the fair would begin to announce its musical lineup. Waffner believes they had a strong slate for the 2020 fair — he called it "the best free concert lineup of probably anywhere in the world" — and noted that the fair invested $3.8 million in the concert series. They will attempt to reschedule those acts for 2021.
The pandemic's impact on the fairgrounds extends beyond the cancellation of the state fair. Since mid-March, the fairgrounds hasn't hosted non-fair events, such as the Syracuse Nationals. The fair issued full refunds for all events that were canceled in March, April and May.
But Waffner is motivated to make the 2021 fair an event that "knocks our socks off." After the cancellation this year, the fair in 2021 will be the first with an 18-day schedule. The expansion from a 13- to 18-day event was announced by Cuomo in January.
The fair will honor tickets sold in February for the 2021 fair or allow customers to get refunds. The refund system is in the process of being set up. Any tickets for the 2019 fair that would've been honored this year will be honored in 2021.
As the focus shifts to 2021, Waffner will miss the experience this year. He's worked at the fair for more than 10 years, including a stint as acting director before being appointed director by Cuomo after the 2018 fair.
Under his leadership, the fair has set attendance records — more than 1.3 people visited the fair in 2019 — and he oversaw more than $120 million in upgrades to the fairgrounds.
For this year, the period from late August through Labor Day weekend will be different for Waffner. The crowds of more than 100,000 people a day won't be there. The animals and vendors won't be there either.
Waffner described the cancellation as "one more chapter in the book" on the New York State Fair. But, he added, it's not the last chapter in the book.
"There are plenty more chapters to come and those chapters are going to be bigger and better than any chapter we've previously written," he said.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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