MAIN Photo: Scotch the dog moves a heifer along Tuesday during the Cattle Dog Trials open class at the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island. Jeannie Allen is the dog's trainer. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

The Nebraska State Fair Board voted Tuesday to go on with the Nebraska State Fair this year, but in a modified format that focuses on 4-H and FFA youth activities due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In approving the modified form of this year’s State Fair, the board also gave the fair’s new executive director, Bill Ogg, and his staff the flexibility to schedule other fair events based on the current ongoing health directives from the Central District Health Department and the state of Nebraska.

According to the plan approved by the board Tuesday during a special meeting that was broadcast on Zoom, the fair will be held on its two scheduled weekends. During the first weekend, which begins on Aug. 28, there will be 4-H activities, including livestock shows and static exhibits. During the Labor Day weekend of the show, the focus will be on the FFA component of the fair, but it will also include those livestock shows that feature both 4-H and FFA members.

Ogg told the board that “it is truly worthy that we invest in our Nebraska 4-H and FFA youth. I think it is important that we offer something in the time frame of the traditional Nebraska State Fair dates.”

“The people of the community and the people of the state and nation are hungry for some wholesome social activity and what is more wholesome and wonderful than a fair,” Ogg said. “The idea of having that and doing it safely and appropriately and doing it affordably, I think is the option for the fair board.”

The Nebraska State Fair was coming into this year’s fair dealing with financial losses caused by the last two fairs, especially last year’s fair that suffered from a lack of attendance because of heavy rain.

Ogg said the first priority in holding a fair this year is the health and safety of people attending the fair.

The second priority, he said, is that “the Nebraska State Fair is here for the next 151 years and we don’t squander our limited resources on trying to do something this year that makes us unsustainable to go forward.”

To keep the fair affordable and sustainable for the future, Ogg said, this year’s fair budget has been reduced to $208,000, compared to a traditional fair budget of about $7 million.

“It is worth the investment for more than 5,000 4-H and FFA members who participate in the State Fair,” he said.

With the fair scheduled two months from now, health directives could change, such as the Central District Health Department decision to go to Phase 3 beginning next week. But health directives could change depending on the spread of the virus. The board decided to give Ogg and his staff the flexibility to schedule other events, depending on current local and state health directives.

That includes the carnival. Jeremy Jensen of Grand Island and other board members expressed concerns about having the carnival, especially as local schools begin the new school year. But by giving Ogg and his staff the flexibility to schedule other fair events, such as the carnival, it will help to make the event as safe as possible as health directives change.

The decision to hold a modified Nebraska State Fair this year comes on the heels of Monday’s announcement that the 2020 Husker Harvest Days had been canceled because of safety concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Ogg told the board there was no “ideal or wonderful or positive choice” in deciding the fate of this year’s State Fair.

He said because of the pandemic, there are restrictions that the fair has to follow for it to be safe for the public.

Ogg said there are also economic constraints for the fair to be able to allow certain events to happens, as it would require extra spending to make those events safe for the public within the health and safety guidelines.

“It would make them so cost prohibitive that even the strongest supporter could not justify them,” he said.

Ogg told the board that many different options were explored concerning this year’s State Fair.

It came down to basically two choices that were available for the board to decide between at their meeting, he said.

“As much as we would like a traditional Nebraska State Fair, that is not available to us,” Ogg said.

He told the board that one option was to cancel the fair and focus on the 2021 fair.

“There is a defensible argument for that,” Ogg said.

The other option that the board could choose, he said, is to showcase “our Nebraska youth, especially our 4-H and FFA members who are so integral to the history of the fair and to fairs in general.”

“We can do that even in the COVID-19 Phase 2 program that we are currently in in Hall County,” Ogg said.

Hall County will enter Phase 3 of the health directives next week, an accomplishment Ogg said is good news as they begin planning for additional fair events.

He is optimistic that health conditions will continue to improve, allowing Hall County to be in Phase 4 of the COVID-19 health directives, proviging fair organizers a wider breadth in planning fair activities.

Ogg said the dilemma facing the fair is the huge task of planning and preparation and logistics of moving people and equipment and the relationships that have to happen. With the fair slated to begin Aug. 28, it would be difficult to “have a significant addition of components to the fair than our junior livestock and statistic exhibits, shows and competitions.”

Beth Smith, board chairwoman, also said that all the events and activities will follow the most up-to-date directive health measures.

“We hold the youth and families involved in 4-H and FFA near and dear to us,” Smith said. “4-H and FFA youth have been hard at work for months preparing their exhibits and livestock, and this gives them the opportunity to showcase those efforts.”

In addition to the youth events, visitors can partake in Raising Nebraska, an interactive display dedicated to food and the families that grow it as well as a variety of Nebraska Game and Parks activities. Depending on Grand Island’s health directive progress, there is the potential to include more concessions, amusement rides, motor sport activities and taverns.

“We are excited to announce that gate admission will be free,” said Smith. “This year has been difficult, so we see this as an opportunity for our community to come together and enjoy a part of Nebraska history and culture.”

In the interest of public health, the State Fair will budget an additional $30,000 to manage cleaning and sanitizing throughout the event. At present, plans are to clean restrooms at least once every two hours, with full-time restroom attendants present. The frequency and number of attendants will adjust to the crowd size.

Smith said the Nebraska State Fair continues to work closely on public health issues with a variety of local and national public health agencies, including the Nebraska governor, Department of Health and Human Services, Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Central District Health Department and the city of Grand Island.

The State Fair has canceled its large concerts, including Jon Pardi on Sept. 3, Dustin Lynch on Sept. 4 and the dual show of Clay Walker and Clint Black on Sept. 6. In addition, the tour canceled the Big Rock Summer Tour featuring Ratt, Skid Row and Quiet Riot. Advance sales of concert and/or gate admission tickets will be refunded through Etix. Questions regarding refunds should be directed to Etix at www.etix.com.

Nebraska State Fair will be releasing additional information as it becomes available ahead of the event. Dates will be available as well as answers to questions at statefair.org. For more information on the Aksarben Stock Show, which is typically held in late September, visit aksarbenstockshow.com.

PHOTOS: A look back at the 2019 State Fair

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